The STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and maths) have been identified as critical to South Africa’s industrialisation and future economic prosperity. Apart from driving economic growth, STEM careers can help to address the problems of unemployment and inequality that are currently rife in the country – the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) could create close to 60 million new jobs globally by 2023. However, there is a significant skills shortage in STEM areas in South Africa, which needs to be addressed. Eight of the top ten scarce-skills occupations in the country are STEM-related, with skills shortages in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector a major challenge due to brain drain and the slow pace of ICT skills development.
Why is the ICT sector so significant? 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 busines growth and economic development, but beyond that it can be viewed as a tool to advance equality and empowerment around the world.
Not everyone has equal access to ICTs, however, and they are not equally distributed. In 2016, more than four billion people of the 7.4 billion on the planet did not have access to the internet, although 75% of people in the world had a cellphone. Only around 1.1 billion have access to high-speed internet. 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 what is referred to as the digital divide and it renders technology far less transformative than it should be, given its capabilities.
Within this digital divide, there is a distinct gender gap. The World Wide Web Foundation found that the global digital gender gap grew from 11% in 2013 to 12% in 2016. A 2015 report by the Web Foundation Women’s Rights Online shows that in poor urban areas in the global south women are 50% less likely to be online than men. This is reinforced by research by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which indicates that the proportion of women using the internet in Africa is a quarter less than men, particularly as African women are disproportionately affected by poverty (80% live in rural areas and lack basic facilities and services). Africa accounts for the largest digital gender gap at 23% (companies to the Americas at 2%).
When it comes to women working in ICT, the figures are not much more encouraging. 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 to participate in the information society is vital if South Africa aims to become competitive in 4IR. Programmes like Vodacom’s Women in Technologies 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. The Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation hosts AI bootcamps that target girls between 15 and 18 from historically disadvantaged communities, and 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. 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.