Africa’s ICT industry urged to prioritise gender equality

Opinion piece by Phumza Dyani: Chief Marketing and Sales Officer – Broadband Infraco, Founder: PANfID and Angela Wamola: Senior Director - GSMA

Co-authored by Phumza Dyani & Angela Wamola

The end of August marked the end of women’s month celebrations in South Africa. As part of this year’s celebrations, the Southern African Telecoms Association (SATA) held a woman’s day celebration with the most excellent line-up of speakers from various parts of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The event themed, Women Driving Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and the Digital Economy, lived up to the expectations and held nothing back in providing insights on keys to faster and further progress in the inclusion of women in Africa’s ICT industry.

With African countries urged to implement a comprehensive digital transformation strategy to enable a digital future for the rise of her digital citizens, it is paramount to ensure that the inclusion of women is at the forefront of the conversation with even greater intensity and bolder undertakings to see change.

Opening the session, Angela Wamola, senior director for strategic engagements at GSMA (GSM Association) sub-Saharan Africa, reflected on the opportunity to celebrate and reflect on women’s achievements as contributors and enablers for inclusive collaboration to solutions on the challenges faced in our communities. She reflected on the room for improvement as gender equality is not a race but a transformational journey that involves everyone. The GSMA, being an industry organisation that represents the interests of mobile network operators worldwide, uniting more than 750 operators with almost 400 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem, including handset and device makers, software companies, equipment providers and internet companies, is well placed to bridge the ICT sector with organisations in adjacent industry sectors.

As we celebrate the fact that almost half the world’s population are online via mobile, with almost 1 billion people using mobile internet services since 2015, we recognise that gaining access to essential communications and a vast array of services that improve our lives on a daily basis is fundamental for enabling transformation. In order to maximise our impact over the next decade, we need to bring the other half of the world online too, majority of whom are women. Accelerating digital inclusion for all plays a key role in reducing inequalities and driving global prosperity.

Empowering more women with mobile phones can accelerate social and economic development (GSMA Intelligence, 2010).

Studies of mobile phone use in African countries found that phones are important tools for social connection and are thus beneficial for maintaining family ties (Pearson et al., 2017).

So the pertinent question we should ask ourselves is: How can we encourage more women to play active roles in solving their challenges for a better future?

The GSMA Connected Women Programme focuses on accelerating digital and financial inclusion for women, to reduce the gender gap in mobile internet and mobile money services in low- and middle-income countries and unlock significant commercial and socio-economic opportunities through addressing the barriers to women accessing and using these services.

The GSMA Women4Tech Programme inspires and connects women with the end goal to reduce, not only the gap in female representation across the mobile industry, but also in senior leadership roles. It’s time to sit at the table instead of being on the menu, as we focus on women in technology career growth by creating development and networking opportunities for sponsorship in shattering glass ceilings.

Participants at the event included representatives from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and  GSMA, shared sentiments that unfortunately in this era, statistics still reflect the slow and sometimes backward pace of transformation. Regionally, South Africa is the only state in SADC that has appointed Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams as the Minister of Communication and Digital Technologies.

The years of experience reflected by the women on the event’s panel highlighted the fact that the industry is not short of confident, competent and capable women to fill the shoes. Consequently, does the ICT sector need a mindset transition in order to attract and retain women as an equal-opportunity sector, for the benefit of our citizens?

Experiences shared through the panellists are universal and amongst others include, the stereotyping of women and resistance to change encountered in the work environment towards embracing women in leadership and performing in roles previously exclusively male dominated.

Admittedly, women acknowledge that ownership of the problem is also necessary to be a part of the solution and embrace much-needed sponsorship from our ICT male counterparts to happen in order to progress the cause. Whilst gender bias is particularly strong in the estimation of skills, with men overestimating and women underestimating their skill levels, there are other equally critical soft skills that must be nurtured in us and through our male supporters. These include, but are not limited to, self-advocacy, wide knowledge built from curiosity, advocacy for each other, self-confidence, risk taking, networking as well as challenging career growth issues such as addressing the gender pay gap within the sector.

It goes without saying that much needs to be done to progress the agenda of women and the event marked the beginning of many engagements for change. A shift must happen in order for progress to follow. In this regard, the association paved the way by taking fortified and palpable resolutions which will be adopted by all Member entities which included:

  • The adoption of the 28 August annually as a special day to celebrate the role being played by women in driving ICT and the digital economy. The day will be celebrated by organising special programmes for women in ICT and the digital economy focusing on the fourth industrial revolution and emerging technologies.
  • All stakeholders within their organisations consider working towards achieving the 50/50, 2025 target of the regional protocol on gender and development and support women to attain post-graduate degrees namely masters (M*) and Doctor of philosophy (PhD).
  • During industry gatherings, stakeholders need to consider the 50/50 gender diversity target in constituting the delegations.

Acceleration of gender parity is much more urgent now as the industry is making strides in emerging technologies of Artificial Intelligence, blockchain and robotics. It has never been much more critical to see that women and girls included in the policies as well as solutions that will be developed for these. We need stronger and intentional policies for inclusion.

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