Empowering South African women to thrive in a digital economy – By Simone Botes

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The relentless global and local demand for top tech talent has put South African companies on the back foot, as there aren’t enough technical skills to meet business demand. Yet, ironically, the solution is on the country’s doorstep. As South Africa celebrates International Women’s Month, it’s appropriate to spotlight the under-represented and often overlooked group that holds the key to our nation’s technological and economic advancement: women in technology.

While South Africa grapples with a tech skills scarcity, the proportion of females to males in the tech sector is out of kilter, with women holding only 23% of tech jobs. This is alarmingly disproportionate, and the issue extends beyond South Africa. A recent report by McKinsey also reveals that, in the UK, women represent only 24.5% of tech positions. Considering that the global tech industry anticipates structural growth of 69 million jobs by 2027, the need to harness the talents of women in this sector has never been more urgent. Regrettably, women’s involvement in South Africa’s tech industry faces many obstacles restricting their full participation and progress. Deep-rooted societal stereotypes and gender biases stubbornly sustain the false narrative that tech is predominantly a ‘man’s world’. This, along with insufficient STEM education and mentorship opportunities for young girls, sharply constricts the flow of female talent into technology careers.

The scarcity of role models compounds the issue. With a shortage of women in tech leadership positions, aspiring women lack visible success benchmarks to fuel their career ambitions. Exacerbating the problem is persistent gender pay discrepancies and unequal opportunities for career growth, further discouraging women from entering and remaining in the tech field. Tackling these hurdles requires a concerted and informed approach, recognising that empowering women in tech is crucial for equity and economic growth. The World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2023 indicates that 79% of organisations are set to focus on women within their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, signalling a global recognition of women’s essential role in defining the workforce of tomorrow.

Dismantling the barriers to entry

To close the skills gap in the tech industry, creating educational opportunities, providing financial assistance, and fostering inclusivity is essential. Public and private entities must work together to remove obstacles to ensure women enter the tech sector and excel in it. Educational curricula should also integrate tech-focused programmes from an early age to effect change. Initiatives like coding boot camps, tech clubs, and scholarship programmes targeting young girls can build an early interest and tech capability.

Furthermore, mentorship from experienced tech professionals and professional development programmes can offer invaluable support to newcomers. Company leaders must actively acknowledge and celebrate female achievements to reinforce that women are integral to the sector’s evolution. Corporate policies are also crucial in ensuring fair recruitment, supportive work environments, and equal pay to cultivate a workplace that embraces diversity. Companies must develop policies that support work-life balance, including flexible working hours, remote work options, and maternity leave, to make tech careers more attractive and feasible for women.

For instance, implementing remote work or providing flexibility aimed at an outcomes-based approach in performance metrics can assist single mothers or working mothers in achieving their goals and maintaining a balanced work-life integration. Furthermore, the correct support mechanisms provided by employers can help reduce bias against working women and facilitate their career advancement.

This International Women’s Day is a rallying cry for change. By dismantling the barriers that sideline women in the tech industry, we can unlock the full potential of our nation’s women while paving the way for robust economic growth.

Simone Botes is the head of Education Operations & Impact at Hyperiondev.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on 12 March 2024 in IOL.