Gender imbalances in ICT not only an equality issue
The disparity in the gender imbalances is not only an equality and social issue, but also a critical challenge to growing economic sustainability, financial inclusion, and a truly connected Africa. Despite significant mobile penetration progress over the last few years in sub-Saharan Africa, the region is home to over 300 million unconnected women.
The latest GSMA research shows that the mobile sector makes a substantial contribution to the GDP, with approximately $100 billion raised in 2014, and it is set to rise to $166 billion by 2020. They have gone on to report that by closing the gender gap in mobile phone access and ownership we could add an additional $170B USD to the entire industry by 2020.
Not only will this increase GDP but if we can work towards increasing the number of women that have access to mobile services this will have a trickle-down effect on numerous industries that are critical for growth including; agriculture, health, financial services, and across the board innovation.
Instances of this correlation are being seen in all corners of the continent. One of my favourite examples whereby ICT innovation is specifically addressed to women is the Mobile Midwife by The Grameen Foundation. This is a free mobile service that enables women and their families to receive SMS and/or voice messages in their own language offering relevant and timely information throughout pregnancy and the first year after birth.
Another great example that recently caught my eye came from South Africa, which is the ‘FoneAstra’ human milk pasteurisation toolkit. The application makes it easier to track and trace donor milk for increased quality control and assurance and can be adapted for use in settings with no electricity. Up to 25 per cent of premature or low birth-weight babies cannot get sufficient breast milk from their mothers, often for reasons of illness or low supply, which leaves them more vulnerable to life threatening conditions such as diarrhoea, pneumonia and neonatal sepsis.
However strong the social and economic benefits; the question of how do we connect more women still remains. I have worked and lived in numerous countries and an obvious answer lies with policy makers and regulators; we need to table this issue more aggressively at local levels so that we see it getting on the agenda for National Development Plans. Addressing the digital gender gap is many times left out of conversations that focus on inclusive growth through innovation and creating greater employment opportunities.
For example; countries like Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo both have a mobile gender gap of more than 30 percent. Cost is the greatest barrier of using and owning a handset; reducing ineffective taxation on mobile services will drive penetration.
With that said the private sector has potentially an even bigger role to play, I was impressed to learn recently that Tigo Rwanda has pledged to increase the percentage of women accessing its Mobile financial platform “Tigo Cash” from 39% of total users to 45% by 2020. These type of commitments are bold and need to be replicated in more companies and across multiple sectors.
We need to provide on-going commitment to ensure a balanced gender representation for inclusive growth to occur, which is key to Africa’s rise. It is not good enough to put programmes in place. These initiatives need to be actively encouraged across all levels of business. So whether it is from a C-suite to an entry-level, positions and opportunities need to be provided that recognise a more equal gender dispensation throughout the entire mobile ecosystem.
This sector is rapidly growing and creating around 120 000 new jobs every year and we need to get more women involved in this growth. Many girls and women have not taken advantage of this opportunity due to various reasons such as cultural barriers.
Ericsson was one of the first companies to publicly announce specific employment goals and set out a vision for 2020 whereby the company is committed to a 30 percent female staff complement. To this end, a regional diversity council has been established to attract and retain female staff. This is connected to programmes that foster and focus on female career development and leadership.
I am proud to be the chairperson of this, but for initiatives such as these to work the key is commitment from the top down.
Our position is that companies do have a role to play in laying the groundwork for female equality and empowerment. We do this in a number of ways to address the current imbalance in female representation at Ericsson and to make sure our male colleagues understand that diversity is not a threat to them but rather a competitive advantage for our company.
These areas include hosting ‘Girls in ICT’ events, as well as graduate and scholarship programmes with a special focus on female graduates with STEM (Sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees. There are also special incentives for female employee referrals. Our ‘Unconscious Bias’ training for staff sensitizes employees to underlying prejudices that we might not even be aware of as a result of our background, cultural environment and our experiences. Most importantly, on-going leadership development, mentoring and sponsorship of females are implemented.
These are important stepping stones to changing traditional imbalances. But it is clear that there are significant challenges to overcome. And while a few companies can start making a difference, for the impact to really change gender inequalities of the past, the industry as a whole has to step up and take action.