The STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and maths) have been identified as critical to South Africa’s industrialisation and future economic prosperity. STEM subjects are a key lever for economic transformation and the foundation of sustainable growth and development, and within this digital divide, there is a distinct gender gap.
The important role STEM subjects play in an economy is highlighted further in the context of the current Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), in which trades that thrived on old technologies are being displaced, giving rise to new skills and new ways of work.
STEM careers drive economic growth
Apart from driving economic growth, STEM careers can help to address the challenges of unemployment and inequality that are currently rife in South Africa. Despite this, the country continues to experience a significant skills shortage in STEM sectors, with research showing that information and communication technology (ICT) professionals and engineers are in highest demand. The skills shortages in STEM sectors is driven by the slow pace of ICT skills development and exacerbated by an increasingly borderless world of work, which has led to many professionals seeking employment offshore without having to relocate, further eroding the local ICT skills base.
Why is the ICT sector so significant for global development? It is explicitly mentioned in one of the targets of Goal 9 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which refers to Industry Innovation and Infrastructure: “Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in the least developed countries by 2020.” This implicitly recognises the developmental potential of ICT, along with its more traditional role of driving the knowledge economy. Yet there are often misperceptions regarding ICT, which can refer to everything from older technologies like telephones, radio and TV to artificial intelligence and robotics.
Essentially, ICT refers to devices and systems that allow us to access, transmit or store information, with all the attendant interactions and transactions that arise from this. ICT is vital to business growth and economic development, but beyond that it can be viewed as a tool to advance equality and empowerment around the world. According to the Future of Jobs Report 2020 published by the World Economic Forum, the speed of the 4IR and pace of ICT adoption is expected to remain steadfast and may even accelerate in some areas. This creates an opportunity for everyone including leaders, policy makers and people across the social spectrum to harness converging technologies and create an inclusive future, in which all members of society live in dignity and thrive.
Addressing the digital divide in Africa
The rapid advances in technology expected in the next decade mean those who are ICT or STEM literate will be better placed to thrive in the labour market. Not everyone has equal access to ICTs, however, and they are not equally distributed. In 2021, the ITU estimated that nearly 3 billion people – or 37% of the world’s population – have never used the internet. Of these, an estimated 2.9 billion people live in developing countries. While the number of people accessing the internet rose during the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of users might only go online infrequently, using shared devices and constrained by slow connection speeds. In Africa, only four out of every ten people had internet access in 2019, and it cost around 7.12% of average monthly income to gain access. This is referred to as the digital divide and it renders technology far less transformative than it should be, given its capabilities.
Understanding the digital gender gap
The World Wide Web Foundation found that the global digital gender gap grew from 11% in 2013 to 12% in 2016. According to WEF, women in the least developed countries are half as likely to be online as men, curtailing their chances to fully participate in or benefit from the 4IR. A 2020 report by the ITU shows that globally, 62% of all men were using the internet, compared with 57% of all women. The report further shows that while parity has been achieved in developed countries as a whole, the gender divide remains wide in developing countries, where only 19% of women are using the internet.
When it comes to women working in ICT, the figures are not much more encouraging. A report by the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative shows that globally, women represent only 3% of ICT graduates. The gender gap is also a concern in South Africa, where less than 25% of technology jobs are held by women.
A PWC report on Women in Tech says women hold 19% of tech-related jobs at the top ten global tech companies. In leadership positions at these companies, women make up 28%. In South Africa, only 23% of tech jobs are held by women – out of 236 000 ICT roles, women occupy only 56 000 of them, according to the Women in Tech website.
Although it has been shown that companies using female talent are 45% more likely to report improved market share, companies are still reluctant to employ or promote women in traditionally male-dominated industries. South Africa cannot even claim to be making strides in this area, since the percentage of women in the local IT sector has declined from a level of 40% in the 1980s.
Empowering women in ICT is vital for 4IR
Empowering women to participate in the information society is vital if South Africa aims to become competitive in 4IR.
This should start at grassroots level. Programmes like Vodacom’s Women Farmers Programme, MTN’s Women in Digital Business Challenge and government’s Technology for Women in Business attempt to move women from the side-lines to the mainstream of the economy through the use of technology.
As a member state of the ITU, South Africa is acutely aware of the need to promote STEM and technology skills like coding among female learners. iNeSI – a government initiative under the Department of Communications – is part of a national strategy to reduce the lack of e-skills in the country. UNICEF, the Ministry in the Presidency: Women, the Department of Basic Education, the State Information Technology Agency and Uweso Consulting have rolled out the popular TechnoGirl programme in the country.
Similarly, global software testing company Inspired Testing has partnered with 4IR 4 HER to promote and develop grassroots skills and create employment opportunities for underprivileged women in the local technology industry. Mastercard has also rolled out its Girls4Tech programme to inspire and prepare girls aged between seven and 12 for careers in STEM.
However, more needs to be done to ensure that girls and women participate fully in the digital revolution and help to elevate South Africa’s competitiveness on the world stage.