by Joanne Carew

AfricaCom: Could the next Bill Gates be female, and African?

Nov 15, 20204 mins
CareersTechnology Industry

IT leaders at the AfricaCom conference said technology is breaking down barriers for women to s쳮d in STEM jobs, but enterprises need to support diversity and inclusion initiatives.

diversity gender equality south africa south african woman at computer in office africa by delmaine
Credit: Delmaine Donson / Getty Images

Could the tech world’s next bigwig come from Africa? And could this individual be female?

Juliet Ehimuan, country director for strategy at Google in Nigeria, thinks so. Referencing an article she wrote back in 2018, Ehimuan explained that she made this bold assertion to illicit a response. She wanted to challenge young women to consider that the next tech heavyweight — be it a Jobs, Gates or Zuckerberg — could be someone who doesn’t look or sound anything like those who have come before her.

Speaking during a panel discussion at AfricaCom last week, Ehimuan and Emma Dicks, a director at CodeSpace, an education institution that specialises in teaching coding and software development in Cape Town, agreed that there is no reason to believe that this isn’t possible; it just requires a shift in mindset.

Both confessed that when they were choosing their career paths, becoming a doctor was the most logical step for a woman who wanted to make an impact and who had an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). But the picture is a little different today, especially because of how careers in tech have evolved and because emerging technologies have infiltrated so many aspects of our lives.

“Humans derive satisfaction from doing well,” explained Dicks. “If I’m going to direct my energy towards something, I’m going to choose something I think I’ll be good at. With this in mind, we need to show women that they can succeed in STEM and the industry must make sure that they cultivate environments where women can and do excel.”

Technology breaks down barriers for women

Beyond encouraging women to pursue careers in tech, the panellists agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the uptake and development of solutions and technologies that address the hurdles faced by women living in Africa.

According to Paula Ingabire, a Rwandan technology enthusiast and politician who currently serves as the minister of ICT and innovation of Rwanda, advances in mobile money, fintech services and online banking, which proved hugely popular during global lockdowns, have boosted financial inclusion by improving access to digital bank accounts and mobile money. “The cost of accessing traditional financial solutions has always been a barrier for African women. These tools and applications enable more women to become active participants in the economy.”

Various remote working technologies have broken down the physical, geographical and social barriers that exist within the traditional workforce. Many African women struggle to find work once they start a family because they have to balance their responsibilities at home and their role within the workplace, noted Ingabire. Today, these remote working tools provide women with the flexibility they need to do both. In addition, online training and e-learning platforms have proven invaluable because they allow women to access the skills they need to compete in the working world and they afford African mothers the chance to learn at their own pace.

In Africa, connectivity is the foundation of empowerment, especially because it democratises access to information, adds Ehimuan. “Education and technology are two sides of the same coin. Education is about empowering people with information and knowledge to access opportunities. Similarly, technology empowers by providing access to the resources and tools people need to create their own opportunities. In today’s world you can’t really have one without the other.”

Ehimuan firmly believes that women can drive the next wave of growth and innovation in the industry. However, this will only be possible if diversity and inclusion are prioritised as critical elements of company culture and if corporate policies are developed to support the different personal transitions that a woman might experience during her career journey. “There has to be a level of intentionality and commitment from corporates to make these spaces more welcoming for women,” she concluded. “This sort of thing critical if we want to make sure that each and every employee is supported and encouraged to grow and thrive into the future.”