Let me kick off this article by sharing some numbers, statistics if you will, of the presence of women in tech. Now, before you, my dear reader, dismiss this article as another feministic rant about male dominance in the tech industry and the lack of representation of the female counterpart, I would like to clarify that it is not a rant, but rather an article from the subjective perspective of a lady actively in the IT industry.
Now for those numbers that, if we are being honest, no one really cares about:
Globally, as of August 2021, women hold 19% of tech-related jobs at the top 10 global tech companies, while men hold 81%. In leadership positions at these global tech giants, men make up 72%, with women only scooping up the remaining 28%. Wow! Talk about a gap! These are the global statistics, and as boring as they are, they do provide an overview of the gap that exist between the representations of men and women in the tech industry, and in STEM-related fields as a matter of fact. Now as you can imagine, first-world countries most likely account for majority of the weight of these statistics. Reducing the scale to look at South Africa and the number of women in tech compared to men, only 23% of tech jobs are held by women. ONLY 23%!
Moving on from statistics, here comes my view of the tech industry as a woman. As all stories have some cliché beginning to them, I would not dare to disappoint the reader by beginning my story with a bang.
To give a brief background of why I decided to pursue a career in IT, particularly Software Engineering, it all began in high school. See? I told you I would not disappoint you with that cliché introduction. In 2014, when I was in grade 9, we, students, had to choose the subjects that we would like to struggle with for the next three years. Jokes! Well, kind of. On the day we had to submit our choices, I had an interesting conversation with a boy in my class. I must say, it was more of an argument than a conversation, but point is, it was interesting. On my selection of subjects, I had Geography, Physical Sciences, and Information Technology. The argu…conversation with that boy was that there was no point in me taking IT as a subject in high school because it was too difficult to understand, and I would learn the exact same things when I got to university anyway. At least, that was his opinion. I did not agree with that and debated that it is better to start while in high school so that learning in university will be easier. Funny enough, that same boy had selected the exact same subjects as I did.
And it was on that day that we made a bet – about who would have the courage to take IT as a subject in high school, seeing that almost everyone had said it was the most difficult subject and at the end of the final year (grade 12), less than ten learners actually sat down for the final exams, and yes, they were all boys. Coming back to the why I decided to pursue a career in IT, about 40% of it was because of the bet, because why not. The remaining 60% of the why was because I became interested in how simple lines of code could be used to solve complex, real-world problems. Okay, maybe the lines of code are not that simple, however I guess it was the challenge of it all that made it a thousand times more interesting. To conclude this rather long background (sorry if I said it was brief in the beginning. I get carried away in storytelling), I was one of two girls in the IT class at the end of grade 12, out of a total of 20 students. There is that gap again! It remained this way even in university, where in a class of about 30-40 students, there were about 5-7 ladies.
Where are the women? Why is the gender gap in the tech industry so wide?
Now, in the workplace and in the industry, I cannot say it is any different from the situation in school. One of the many reasons why young girls and women do not even think of pursuing a career in tech is fear. Like that boy I had that ‘IT as a subject in high school’ debate with, there are people that constantly, and without fail, instil fear in women when they think of setting foot in a male-dominated industry. See, he tried to scare me into not taking IT. It was intimidating, most definitely, because I was in a classroom full of boys who had been exposed to technology far earlier than I was. Some of them had parents who were computer scientists, and so were well exposed to that world. A few of them were even geniuses who could solve any coding challenge in minutes. I did not even know the shortcuts to copy and paste, but there I was, in the IT class learning to code. Did I mention that it was difficult? Right, because I struggled to even understand a simple FOR loop…for the entire three years!
If there are so little women in tech, how can there be enough role models for the young aspiring girls? The lack of role models is another hurdle that discourages these girls and women from lunging forward and taking that leap of faith into tech. Ask a little girl, in fact anyone, to name only one woman in tech, and I am pretty sure he/she would have to Google that first. Ask anyone to name a man in the tech industry. We all know that those names will roll of their tongues faster than the multiples of 2. Elon Musk! Jeff Bezos! Bill Gates! Mark Zuckerberg! Tim Cooke!
The media. The media does not even showcase women in tech, as little as there are. It does not even at the very least celebrate the fact the first programmer was a woman, or that the only way that NASA could make it to the moon was due to the hard work and dedication of a group of extremely intelligent women. How can we not celebrate that?
History impacts our present. It is what is contained within those chapters of a history book that can have an impact on a young person’s perspective of the world. If our own history books do not even mention phenomenal women such as Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper or Annie Easley, a computer scientist and rocket scientist among other things, how can we expect little girls to be interested in technology? I did not even know about the first programmer being a woman until I read it at the back of a Chappies wrapper. Some consider this to be a myth, and I give it to you, it is fairly debatable, but please let a girl child dream!
The tech world is not only about writing code, but it is a large industry consisting of many paths to follow. Software Development, AI, Data Science, Systems Analysis, Software Testing, Robotics, and the list goes on. Even UX/UI Design is a whole career path (No shade intended, of course)!
As for me, it is only my first year working in tech, introduced to it through a graduate programme, and it has been one hell of an experience thus far. First day that I met my fellow graduates, I was brimming with excitement. Finally, I would meet more ladies in this rather terrifying industry. I got a little excited a little too early. I was a tad disappointed to be the ONLY female developer in the group. To say that I was lonely would be an understatement. It was no new experience really, because I have experienced this since I was 16, however, I still felt isolated.
It has been difficult but that was what I signed up for. Make no mistake, this is not to discourage or demotivate any girl or woman who wants to get on the tech industry bus. I mean, I guess at any tech company there is a considerable number of women and one can never be completely alone, however it is still lonely. The lack of incentives to encourage girls from tender ages to consider tech and IT as a career massively contributes to the rather disappointing numbers of women in tech in the world.
Now while I am no genius like Ada Lovelace, Annie Easley, Debjani Ghosh or Sewagodimo Matlapeng, I am still proud to be part of the 23% representing women in tech in South Africa. I might be in a male-dominated industry, and well, it might take a couple more decades to see a significant increase in women in this industry, but I will not back down from the challenge. I do not have my foot in the door, I only have a toe in at the very least, but I intend to be a success in this industry, and even with the little knowledge that I have, I dare to motivate and encourage little girls and fellow women to step into this world of technology and IT, teach them not to fear but to embrace it. Besides, computing is too fun to be left to only men!
Updated to add: See these resources for empowering women in tech.