Natasha Reuben, Head of Transformation, Dell Technologies South Africa

Gender imbalance isn’t just another challenge that companies need to overcome, it’s arguably the greatest threat facing the global tech sector today. This is something we’re seeing across many regions, including Sub-Saharan Africa, Reuben says.

She adds that the technology sector is facing a shortage of talent: there aren’t enough professionals in the existing technology pipeline to fill the positions that are expected to open in the next decade. In fact, Korn Ferry estimates that by 2030, the global tech workforce will be short 4.3 million employees. Achieving greater gender diversity in the sector can help close this huge gap, tapping into the half of the population that has so far been left behind.

The technology sector also thrives on innovation, which is driven by diverse thinking. As such, leaving those who identify as female on the sidelines is quantifiably hurting businesses and economies. Technology companies can achieve great gains by embracing diversity, which is defined as having a broad variety of genders, ethnicities, abilities and sexual orientations on the same team, as well as different backgrounds, experiences and views. It’s the intersectional nature of these characteristics that encompass an individual’s whole self. True inclusivity means considering all aspects of an individual’s identity and embracing them.

Where are the women and girls?

Reuben says globally women representation gets lost at every stage of the talent pipeline, from early education and grade school, to higher education and entry-level positions, to management and leadership.

“Women and girls are leaving the talent pipeline, often before they have the chance to excel. And if companies are going to keep them in the tech ecosystem, they need to embrace diversity and inclusion. This does not just mean welcoming a wider variety of individuals into the workforce — it means changing the workplace culture from the ground up so that these individuals know they’re seen, heard and valued.”

She adds that the good news is that progress towards gender parity is being made. According to the Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, Sub-Saharan Africa is a little behind East Asia and the Pacific Region, having closed 68% of the gender gap in comparison to the latter’s 68.5% closure. “While Africa still falls far behind the leader in this regard, Western Europe (76.7%), Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most improved regions with regards to the speed it is closing its gap. The region, along with Latin America, showed the best improvement over the past year, whereas other regions were progressing at a far slower rate, ” she says.

As for how countries in the region are faring, according to McKinsey, South Africa isn’t doing too badly, coming in at third, behind Namibia in first place, and Rwanda, in second. Globally, these top three African countries rank 9th, 12th, and 17th South Africa is followed by Burundi and then Zambia and Zimbabwe, taking fourth, fifth and sixth place respectively from a regional perspective. Right at the bottom of the ranking is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At 34th regionally, and a dismal 149th globally, it shows that there is still much room for progress in Sub-Saharan Africa.   

For all countries in the region, neither their regional nor global ranking justifies resting on its laurels. The McKinsey study found that Africa could add $316 billion or 10 percent to GDP in the period to 2025 if each country made advances in women’s equality to match the country in the region that has achieved the most progress towards parity. Today, however, this “best-in-region” scenario seems a distant possibility. At the current rate of progress, Africa could take more than 140 years to achieve gender parity.

So how can companies cultivate inclusion, create change and transform the tech sector’s greatest threat into its greatest opportunity? The answer is ensuring that women and girls stay engaged with the technology ecosystem across their entire education and career journey.

At Dell Technologies, we’ve set ambitious measurement targets for gender representation, pledging that by 2030, 50% of our global workforce and 40% of our global people leaders will be women. Also by 2030, our goal is that 95% of employees will receive training on crucial topics such as unconscious biases, harassment, micro-aggressions and privilege.

Beyond our own internal workforce, we’re aiming to ensure that within the next decade, 50% of the beneficiaries of our philanthropic programming are women, girls and underrepresented groups.

Create new opportunities in STEM education

Reuben says around the world, girls are exceeding boys on two fronts: they’re getting better grades in high school and, for the most part, they’re entering higher education in greater numbers. 

A study conducted by the University of Stellenbosch found that for every 100 females there are only 85 males in matric. Furthermore, relative to their male counterparts, it noted that in South Africa there are 27% more females who qualified for university‚ 34% more who enroll in university‚ 56% more who complete any undergraduate qualification and 66% more who attain a bachelor’s degree.

However, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is still an outlier to this trend, largely because of cultural biases and social expectations that associate these disciplines with men. Emerging technology fields, like cloud computing and data and AI, are by an overwhelming margin, occupied by men in South Africa.

According to the World Economic Forum, cloud computing professional participation in South Africa is 86% male and only 14% female. Data and AI is only a little better – 72% of occupations in that field are male, as compared with 28% female. Engineering shares the same dismal ratio as cloud computing, with female representation at a small 14%. 

To help address this issue, companies are in a position to be drivers of change. The Reboot Representation Tech Coalition has outlined several critical building blocks for success in empowering women and girls in STEM. We need to offer on-ramps for beginners and help them build confidence, cultivate a community of supportive peers and ensure family members and teachers are encouraging progress.

She says it’s also crucial to ensure access to technology and computing experiences, and create continuity between them. By guaranteeing these opportunities, companies can nurture the top talent that will keep them growing for years to come. Experts and advocates at Reboot Representation also encourage businesses to collaborate with partners and invest in nonprofits to provide these support systems.

When it comes to delivering digital skills for the future workforce, for instance, companies like Dell Technologies are rising to the challenge. Since 2014, the company has donated more than $70 million to non-profits working to inspire individuals to learn, gain real skills, and pursue careers in STEM. Our Solar-Powered Learning Labs are modular classrooms made from shipping containers, fully equipped with photovoltaic panels and energy efficient workspaces — and they’ve brought technology education to more than 17,000 students in underserved areas in South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco, Kenya, Mexico and Colombia. Initiatives such Digital Futures also show the power and efficacy of getting young people — especially girls — involved in conversations about tech early, while STEMAspire provides mentoring and support for women studying STEM subjects in university to support their transition from school to careers in technology after graduation.

Time to eliminate biases

Reuben suggests that as women and minorities continue to enter the workforce, they’re facing a number of barriers driven by unconscious bias. Businesses that hire for “team fit,” for instance, may think they’re building a cohesive company culture, but in fact they’re only making themselves less innovative and more homogenous.

From exclusionary language in job postings to culturally prescribed notions of what “male” and “female” positions entail, unconscious bias works in subtle ways — and it carries a heavy price tag. The Kapor Center calculated that turnover due to unfair and unequal treatment costs businesses $16 billion per year in employee replacement costs.

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