CAPE TOWN - Have you ever wondered why you can buy gender-neutral health gadgets, like blood pressure monitors, off the shelf, at a relatively low price? And have you ever wondered why gadgets aimed specifically at women - like menstrual pain relievers and pregnancy monitors - either don’t exist or are hard to come by and outrageously expensive?
Imagine the type of product innovation we would be enjoying today if more girls and women were encouraged to follow careers in technology decades ago. Imagine the types of global problems we could be addressing. Problems relating to fertility, childcare, sexual harassment - all problems that affect women, but that are being largely ignored by the male-dominated tech industry.
Jobs everywhere, no skills
The World Economic Forum estimates that 65percent of children today will end up in careers that don’t even exist yet, driven by drastic changes in technology and business systems. The majority - if not all - of these careers will require at least basic digital skills.
How do we hope to fill these positions when we’re battling with a global technology skills crisis today? In the US, there will be a million more jobs in computing than applicants who can fill them by 2020. Globally, we need at least 1.5million cyber security professionals.
South Africa does not have enough software developers to build a digital economy. The percentage of women in the local IT sector has declined from a level of 40percent of professionals in the 1980s to 20percent today. And while 22percent of computer science graduates are women, only 2.9percent of them land jobs in the field of technology.
While the digital revolution will create many jobs, it will also make millions of jobs redundant. UN Women estimates that women will gain only one science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related (Stem) job for every 20 jobs lost in other areas as a result of the digital revolution, whereas men will gain one new job for every four lost elsewhere.
These statistics should make us all angry and inspire us to take action. Yet the legacy of gender stereotyping, which suggests that careers in technology are better suited to men, combined with a 12percent gender gap in Internet use globally (rising to 31percent in least developed countries), continues to discourage girls and women from seriously considering careers in technology.
One thing’s for sure - there aren’t enough men in the world to meet the demand for tech skills. Not today and certainly not in the future. We desperately need girls to rise to the challenge but we all have a role to play in educating them about their opportunities, destroying gender stereotypes and equipping girls with the skills and interest they need to take on the digital world.
Technology has largely been regarded as a boys-only club, to which women have recently been invited - as long as they stick to the lower-paying, less prestigious “softer skills”, like project management and design. But it hasn’t always been that way. One crucial piece of history that seems to have been forgotten is that women were among the first visionaries and software engineers.
Ada Lovelace, born in 1815, invented a computer algorithm before computers even existed. And, in the 1950s, software development and coding was primarily done by women, who also powered the tech sector during World War II. In fact, the entire Apollo mission might have been a disaster if it weren’t for Margaret Harris’ coding skills. Harris actually coined the term "software engineering".
As we recognise International Girls in ICT Day today, under the theme “expand horizons, change attitudes”, it’s crucial that we revisit, re-imagine and rewrite a history that was lost.
We need to remind girls that they have incredible role models. We need to show them that, through technology, they can create and innovate and solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Not only do we have to educate girls about their career options in technology, but we also have to remind the world about the history of women in tech.
Schools, universities, NPOs, corporates. Everyone has a role to play in changing the status quo and impacting the lives of girls who don’t have access to the tools or knowledge to help them on their way to a career in technology.
Coding camp for girls
Here’s a great example of how we can come together to make a difference: in recognition and support of International Girls in ICT Day, the Sage Foundation, together with GirlCode and Ericsson, will host a coding camp for schoolgirls in Diepsloot, Johannesburg. Ten Sage volunteers will introduce 33 girls from the area to coding and programming, using an online tool called Scratch. The visual programming language is targeted primarily at children, who use it to create their own interactive stories, games and animations. Many corporates are involved in initiatives like this, but we need more hands on deck.
Joanne van der Walt, the director: Sage Foundation Promotions: Global, said: “As one of the fastest-growing industries globally, the technology industry cannot afford to continue to exclude women. We need their skills, knowledge and passion to ensure that the innovations coming out of this space are not biased and promote equal access and opportunities for all.
“We’re up against many challenges, including massive skills shortages, discriminatory working environments, gender stereotypes, unequal pay for equal work, and a lack of access to connectivity and education resources. But this also presents opportunities to shift priorities and investments and start enacting meaningful change in schools, in workplaces, in our homes and in government.
Zandile Keebine is the chairperson and co-founder of GirlCode.
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.