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OPINION: Closing the digital gender divide

Huawei South Africa Chief Executive Officer, Spawn Fan
Huawei South Africa Chief Executive Officer, Spawn Fan

JOHANNESBURG – IN a connected, digital society, undoing structural inequality must also have a digital component. For this reason, skills transfer in ICT fields is a critical part of women’s empowerment, writes Spawn Fan, CEO of Huawei South Africa.

This year, South Africa’s Women’s Month falls during one of the most challenging periods in our history – the global COVID-19 pandemic. As we emerge from the lockdown, we find a country facing greater inequality than ever before. However, we have also seen the power of information and communication technology (ICT) to reduce this inequality.

As always during times of economy difficulty, it is women who bear the brunt of the hardship. They are the ones forced to support families and raise children with whatever means they have at their disposal. Today, key to enhancing women’s economic power is improving their connectivity and their digital skills.

This is a very real prospect, and it is incumbent on all stakeholders in the digital economy that we build programmes and initiatives to narrow this digital gender divide.

That divide is not just about fewer opportunities. It also threatens women’s lives. A recent report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) found gender inequalities in the access to communications technology and in its design, and how it is used in disaster risk management.

Women who are already disadvantaged through digital exclusion, rural marginalization and gender inequalities, face yet another risk if they live in disaster-prone areas.

Fewer women in tech jobs
In the workplace, the situation is not much better. According to industry association Women In Tech, of an estimated 236 000 tech jobs in South Africa, only 23%, or 56 000 of them, are held by women. Globally, the WEF reports that the largest gender gaps are to be found in areas such as cloud computing, engineering, data and AI – the emerging jobs driving the new economy.

Fixing this will take real commitment, but the Fourth Industrial Revolution offers us opportunities to make a big difference.

In a recent article, United Nations Development Programme Deputy Regional Director, in Asia and the Pacific Valerie Cliff says that “as robots and artificial intelligence transform global production, skilled workers with college degrees will emerge the winners.” However, she points out that as these benefits are often distributed unevenly, women will tend to be disadvantaged.

The way to avoid 4IR entrenching the digital gender divide is through conscious investment in upskilling women for the new era. In Africa, the only continent where women are more likely to be entrepreneurs than men – digital empowerment comes with an enterprise development opportunity.
As Dr David Monyae, director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg, points out, increasing access to e-commerce could have a positive effect on gender justice.

Bias by design
The problem requires a fundamental re-evaluation of our approach to technology. Gender bias is so embedded in the industry, that even design is often male centric.

We may already have heard of the examples where office air-conditioner settings are based on male body temperatures, while women’s metabolic rates are often 35% lower than men. In a more specifically technology context, smartphone handsets are often designed to fit a larger male hand, and there are seldom period trackers in health apps.

Voice recognition technology – one of the fundamentals of artificial intelligence – also sometimes only recognises male voices. The AI and machine-learning algorithms that underpin much machine learning may also have been designed from an exclusively male perspective. This can mean women are discriminated against in areas as diverse as home-loans, insurance, and healthcare.

Training and culture
Resolving these biases means not being gender blind, but actively taking women into account. We must avoid programming bias into our future. A good way to do this is by investing in tech training programmes that ensure women will be part of the teams creating the technology of our 4IR future.

Another approach is to encourage culture change in traditionally male-dominated workplaces. This would mean taking positive action such as promoting and hiring of women who can become senior role models, coaching, mentorship, and flexible work hours that help women to balance work and life responsibilities.

Boosting women in tech must thus start with boosting women in society, in education and in the workplace.

At Huawei, we have set a quota for 50% female intake in our bursary programme, our graduate programme and our Seeds for the Future development programme to ensure greater representation of women and girls.

We support Bring A Girl Child To Work and Girls In ICT initiatives, and we partnered with the Department of Communication and Digital Technologies to deliver a tailor-made 5G course for the department’s women staff, complete with training in IoT, Cloud and Fibre-to-X through the Huawei Learning Centre.

These are similar steps that organisations across sectors can take to empower women in the technology space. I encourage stakeholders in all industries to consider how they can narrow the digital gender divide.
The issues go far beyond gender equity. Once women are empowered to achieve and excel through technology the benefits will accrue not just to women, but to all of us, right across society.

NB: Spawn Fan is CEO of Huawei South Africa

– CAJ News


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