By Sonwabise Sebata, Deputy Chair, South African Women in ICT Forum
Time and again it has been proven that companies that foster gender diversity at board, executive and employee levels outperform and produce greater value for their shareholders than homogeneous companies.
In fact, colleagues in the investment community share that when selecting companies for their portfolios one of their top priorities is the considerations of companies that have equal (or more) female representation.
Despite this, statistics tell a different story. In South Africa, for instance, we have less than 23% of female representation in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) employment environment. In Europe, the female representation is seating at 30%. To make matters worse, is the fact that women only make up 40% of the total workforce in some of the global telecommunication companies, which is an unexceptional figure that is often celebrated.
Gender diversity is more than an employment equity imperative. It makes business sense. For instance, a study conducted by the World Economic Forum reflects that a 1 percent increase in gender diversity correlates with a 3 percent gain in revenue. Gender diverse companies also have an advantage in that different points of view can be represented, generating a broader range of ideas that produce superior innovation to their competitors.
Despite this, gender diversity is taking place at a snail pace. Commitment to gender diversity requires focus, speed and commitment from the top. Companies need to make concerted efforts to invest in gender diversity plans that are executable, within a set timeframe, and to hold people accountable on delivering on those plans.
Leadership is no new feat for women. From the women soldiers of Dahomey, Queen Nzinga Mbandi, activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the South African women marchers of 1956, and Mabel Dove-Danquah, to name a few – women have always been trailblazers of their time, repeatedly taking up leadership roles in the face of adversity. This is no different to the tech space where women have always been pioneers of innovation. Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was already programming computers in the 1800s. In 1946, it was women who programmed the first electronic programmable computer, the ENIAC. In 1958, Elsie Shutt started CompInc, the first software business from the US. Our celebrated techpreneurs, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, were mere toddlers at the time. In the 1960s, we had Mary Jackson, an engineer from Nasa – who was nicknamed “Human-Computer”. In 1992, Dr. Mae Jemison was the first black female astronaut to travel to space. Let’s not forget the legendary Grace Hopper. Today, a mere Google search will reveal millions of female-owned companies, female professionals and leaders in tech.
Yet repeatedly, you hear from recruiters, event organisers, and organisational leaders that “there are no women in tech industry”. This is the global excuse used by organisations to avoid self-introspection because that would probably reveal their unwillingness to drive gender diversity with vigor.
To say that there are no women in the tech industry couldn’t be further from the truth. Part of the initiatives by the Presidential Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) Commission should be to look at ways to help improve gender diversity in the technology space.
Qualitative and quantitative data of the workforce available to the sector needs to be analysed and acted upon. Without thorough research and analysis to ensure the inclusion of the largest demographic in society – women, any decisions and programmes designed for the future of the sector in South Africa is futile. We should dig deeper into elements of acquisition and retention of female talent in the sector in order for us to really have impact. Too few ICT and ICT-enabled companies are deliberate about creating career opportunities that target women. From 2001 to 2013 only 3 percent of venture capital funding went to women-owned companies.
For a sector that is assumed to be led by first-movers, we are really not prepared for the world of tomorrow. A valid example: The facial recognition on my phone does not recognise me when I change hairstyles. Why? Because the person (read: man) who designed the software does not fathom that as a woman, a black woman at that, I change my makeup and hairstyles quite frequently. Don’t even get me started on the masculine tech accessories that don’t fit into my clutch bag. This apathy towards the inclusion of women in the sector has to come to an end. It remains a missed opportunity for the technology sector to truly meet market needs.
That said, the inclusion of women, should also not just be positioned for women to pose as accessories along the corridors of power, women deserve a seat at the table and preferably the seat from which the meeting is chaired. For business’ sake.