The past year has been very challenging – from the stress of living through a global pandemic to the various lockdown restrictions that have kept us indoors. But, amid this tough phase, we have also witnessed moments worth celebrating.
In the past few months, we saw Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala become both the first woman as well as the first African to serve as the WTO’s director-general. Meanwhile, in Tanzania we saw Samia Suluhu Hassan being sworn in as the African states’ first female president. Across the continent, we are seeing more women leading movements for inclusivity, equality and justice – reshaping Africa’s legacy.
While change has been incremental, we still need a breakthrough. Our recent IBM IBV Study suggests that more programmes haven’t translated to more progress. With the impact of COVID-19, women will be our biggest casualties as progress for women at work could be back to 2017 levels by the end of 2021. While a small group is leading the effort to close the prevailing gender gap across the continent, there is a growing need to go beyond what’s being done now; actively build women in the workforce and create supportive cultures even when the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us.
My work affords me the privilege of meeting and listening to some very inspiring women who are helping bring about significant changes by using technology. As I interact with them and watch them, I realize that we all need to be intentional about promoting women at the workplace. That is an important start, but for full and effective participation we first have to make sure our young women develop a keen interest in technology and science-related subjects at an early age.
Cultivating an interest in science and technology
Research shows that unless we change various cultural and behavioural drivers within organizations, the matter is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. In South Africa, the proportion of females to males who graduate with STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees is out of kilter. Developer Advocate at IBM in South Africa and Scrum Master for Student Experience within IBM Z, Phila Phungula, is aware of this disparity and comments that the lack of women in final-year classes is a continued sight in the universities she interacts with.
As an IBM Z technical specialist, Phila represents one of the 30% of professionals in the technology industry of sub-Saharan Africa. Today, she leads the charge to expose students to IBM technologies – giving them insights into emerging technologies such as blockchain and Microservices, helping them develop coding skills.
She understands the need for community and has built a meetup page with over 600 members (most of them industry developers) across South Africa, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia. The hackathons she hosts are designed to give students an entry into technology – cultivating and nurturing the interest that led her on this career path and closing the gap between women and men in exploring careers in technology. In fact, she will also be speaking at the Women in Tech World Series.
The future of Africa relies on a solid pipeline of women in STEM
The lack of women in our classrooms also impacts on the number of women in our boardrooms. An IBM study shows that only 1 in 4 global organizations have made gender equity a business priority – and there are now fewer women in the pipeline to fill senior executive roles than there were in 2019.
Globally, women make up less than 30% of the world’s researchers – and these numbers are perhaps lower when we consider minority women. If we are to ever increase the number of women in leadership in STEM and tech-related fields to reflect the population of the world (almost 50-50 men-women), then it also means we have to increase the pipeline of women – and especially minorities – that enter STEM fields, pursue advanced degrees, and eventually pursue careers in it.
In Kenya, our research champion, Charity Wayua, and her team are taking in computer science interns who are interested in research –giving them first-hand experience in publication writing, mentorship and supporting them through daily interactions with researchers.
The objective is to make them strong candidates for a competitive and changing environment. By the time they apply for a PhD programme, they will have several publications and patents under their belt – along with on-the-job experience. Such programmes help many individuals, especially women, overcome any STEM career barriers.
Women are leveraging new age technology to solve the continent’s unsolvable problems
As new technologies are introduced at a rapid pace, the dynamics will change. We could expose young women and those in the workplace to new technologies – sending them down the rabbit hole of discovering technology and science, changing the course of our economy now and far into the future.
For Amira Abbas, a Research scientist at the IBM Research Lab in Johannesburg, new technologies such as quantum are actually driving diversity and collaboration. She comments that the quantum community is still very young and diverse, with a good number of female colleagues. She sees an exponential interest in quantum, driven by an increasingly open and collaborative environment.
While gender stereotypes often deter women from careers in technology, Amira is part of a growing number of researchers who are women at IBM Research Africa. Her work is about tackling what we might have seen as previously unsolvable problems and exploring capabilities and use cases of quantum on the continent. Amira is part of the new breed in our science and research community, focused on progressing the continent’s development agenda through exponential technology. She has set out to create better models in machine learning-work, which when applied to the power of quantum computing can help us create new medicines and even financial models.
Aisha Walcott-Bryant, also a member of our Africa Lab based in Nairobi, recently worked on a project introducing the Worldwide Non-pharmaceutical Interventions Tracker for COVID-19 (WNTRAC) — a comprehensive dataset consisting of more than 6,000 NPIs across 261 countries and territories, now publicly available for free, for non-commercial use and frequently updated to ensure the most up-to-date information.
She hopes that the dataset is valuable for policymakers, public health leaders, and researchers in modelling and analysis efforts for helping control the spread of COVID-19. The project was recently published in Nature – Scientific Data.
This move, away from the traditional and conservative ways of doing tasks, is what will push the continent into a better future – led by exceptional women who are committed to reshaping Africa’s legacy in a post-COVID-19 world. If our goal is to empower the whole of Africa and contribute to equity and inclusive development as we build a digital future, we need to make sure that women are not left behind in the continent’s story of growth.
>>>The writer is Regional General Manager for IBM North, East and West Africa