We’re used to the argument that women in business are on the rise and the evidence for this speaks for itself. But the opinion that technology is a man’s game is often left unchallenged especially in some parts of the world. Traditionally women have had little representation in the IT world.
This was certainly the case when I started my career almost 20 years ago. Over time, the combination of increased reliance on technology, promise of equality in westernised countries and intensified recruiting efforts of companies across several industries has transformed this trend throughout the past decade.
Being a woman in technology, I’m keen to explore how – and why – women have become an asset to the IT sector.
My first encounter with IT was in the late 1980s by hanging out with the “geeks” at the after school Computing Club. Technology quickly harnessed my interest. My first big leap into IT as a career came when I was offered a job as a Test Analyst for a market research software company. I used my experience in market research as a basis to secure this position. I was then promoted into a role of pre-sales consulting which included coding in HTML and Visual Basic. By utilising my experience and training, I broke down any notion of a glass ceiling for myself – a woman in IT.
I was then offered a great job to run an e-commerce website where I had to work with teams in Copenhagen, London and Boston. When the dot com crash occurred in the early 2000’s, I was again able to try my hand in another field of IT, this time as a Project Manager for a large agency in London. In turn, this led to the inception of ClearPeople, the technology company that I co-founded.
This quick summary of my CV is to demonstrate one main point – I did not come from a technical background. But this has not affected my progression in the technology industry. With each step my career has taken, I had to consume myself completely in new technologies. I believe it is your attitude and willingness to learn which enables success and I encourage more women to do the same.
Exposure diminishes gender barriers
More women are entering the IT sector for a number of reasons. The first is that more are exposed to IT as technologies have become pervasive tools necessary to complete social interactions and work-related tasks. Such ubiquitous exposure diminishes gender barriers, thus increasing gender neutral interest in IT.
Over several decades organisations have driven programmes designed to acquaint women to IT related fields in an effort to close the gender gap and to create equal opportunities.
For instance, organisations like The Anita Borg Institute for Women in Technology, the Society of Women Engineers and even the Girl Scouts have focused on increasing exposure and experience with technology, science, maths and several other fields to pave a path for women in historically male dominated industries.
As each gender barrier is broken down, it leads way for women to conquer new heights.
Currently, women hold 29% of tech positions overall. However, after analysing industry tech reports, CNET found that although the percentage of women in tech roles is on the incline, there are “significantly fewer women in positions to influence their companies’ product development and or strategic direction”. Female representation at Board level in any industry is still nowhere near high enough but we are making progress.
Although change may not be occurring at a rapid pace, I am pleased to see women are becoming more involved in technology, seen in the numbers of women enrolling in tech-related courses at university levels for example. As each generation progresses, we will see more women rise and become more influential in business.
A perfect example of introducing stereotypical male interests to women has been illustrated in a recent campaign by EDF, the second largest energy company in the UK.
Their “Pretty Curious” campaign captivates the momentum of young females that are fascinated, curious and inspired by technology. The technology, science and engineering sectors are facing a large skills shortage already now and this will only widen in the future. Efforts in corporations that encourages young women to be uninhibited by technology and science is a giant leap towards breaking down gender barriers and establishing unified interests across all fields.
Watch the campaign video below:
Similar to EDF, many IT companies in the western world have implemented a number of programmes in order to bring and keep more women into the workplace. They are not doing this to just reach equality quotas set by some governments or to fill a skills shortage gap, but because it is proven that gender-diverse teams deliver superior productivity and financial performance compared with homogenous teams.
How? Through improved team work – a study of 272 projects in 4 companies proved that gender diversity on technical work teams was associated with superior adherence to project schedules, lower project costs and higher employee performance ratings.
Gender-balanced teams are also the most likely to experiment, be creative, share knowledge, and fulfil tasks. And most importantly, financial performance is higher than average when there is gender diversity at the top management. In particular, these companies demonstrated superior return on equity, earnings before interest and taxes, and stock price growth.
According to the Mail and Guardian, the share of women in the non-agricultural employment sector has increased from 43% in 1996 to 45% in 2012 (the latest available figure), and 77% of women earned the same amount as men, according to 2010 figures from Statistics South Africa. But there is still a way to go for full equality of women in business in South Africa who are still falling short in gender equality standards compared to other parts of the western world.
Diversity and being adventurous are two of our values that we continuously promote at ClearPeople. Being a woman in IT is empowering and fulfilling, and I encourage those who are interested in IT to follow your interest and to stay curious.
Collaborating To Create #balanceforbetter
Communicating this business case, setting goals and reporting on progress are key to driving change. The door to diversity will not open itself.
Each year on 8 March, International Women’s Day, I get invited to attend events that celebrate and discuss gender diversity in the workplace. They’re often rich with intelligent discussions about women and work, a topic I am immensely passionate about.
But all too often, I sit up on stage, look out to the crowd and I think, ‘where on earth are all the men?’ There are many supportive men on gender diversity (I know quite a few) but there is still work to be done as I often find myself singing to a choir of women who already know that gender diversity is a business priority.
It’s irrefutable that having a gender balance leads to better business outcomes, greater profitability and value creation. Better balance between women and men means broader insight, more empathy, and fresh ideas.
Gender diversity is not only a women’s issue. It’s a human issue. And the majority of our business leaders today, in particular in technology, are men. The only way we are truly going to make headway is to have the men standing with us to create a business environment where women can thrive.
I believe collaboration is vital to have as part of any gender diversity discussion and would even go so far as to say it’s negligent if this isn’t on a male or female business leaders’ agenda.
However, I think it’s easy to point fingers and we all need to look at how we can create more inclusive environments. It’s critical we have discussions in an open forum, and that organisers of events and support groups create positive opportunities for discussion that encourage men and women to attend and work together.
It worries me that the 2018 McKinsey and Company report on Women in the Workplace shows that progress hasn’t just slowed, it’s stalled. All the while, companies are reporting that they are highly committed to gender diversity. It’s a frustrating paradox. We didn’t open the door to diversity, only to turn around and shut it behind us.
Recently, I was introduced to the term moral-licensing through Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History. I can’t help but think that the phenomenon might be at play here. It describes the subconscious decisions we make to engage in prejudice behaviour, because in the past we did something virtuous.
Moral-licensing became a popular theory in 2009, describing those who voted in US President Barack Obama, and subsequently reverted to racist behaviours.
When I think about it in this context, I think about the companies who have hit a quota of females and assume the job is done. But token acts of egalitarianism do not mean you have an egalitarian workplace. It’s box-ticking and it’s bad for business.
I encourage every business leader to introduce a diversity plan and to really think about fostering an inclusive and respectful environment for diversity to thrive. Here’s where I think is a good place to start:
Women need to feel supported in the workplace, they need allies to feel confident enough that they can share their beliefs, their values and their views. Our leaders need to reengineer working environments to make them a safe, supportive place.
We need to be aware of our unconscious biases and flagging behaviour in the workplace that isn’t inclusive. It’s little things like calling grown women ‘girls’. They’re small but reinforcing behaviours and when added up, they have impact.
Support groups and events around International Women’s Day are great, but how can we make sure we have a diverse spread in the room and it’s an inclusive and encouraging environment for everyone.
I do believe the majority of businesses have the very best of intentions in this space, but leaders need to turn those intentions into actionable plans. So this International Women’s Day, I challenge you to speak out publicly about your business’s progress and goals for diversity. How is your organisation tracking and what is your vision and plan for the future? What you’re doing to ensure you’re not giving in to moral-licensing?
Communicating this business case, setting goals and reporting on progress are key to driving change. The door to diversity will not open itself.
Funding And Financial Assistance For SA Women Entrepreneurs
Female entrepreneurs are growing in numbers, but without access to appropriate funding many start-ups will find it difficult to grow their businesses, regardless of whether there’s a man or woman at the helm. Fortunately, access to funds for female entrepreneurs is improving thanks to government and private enterprises.
In fact, The Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA) noted that 72% of micro-enterprises and 40% of small enterprises are currently owned by women. Government and private enterprises have put programmes and funds in place aimed at empowering the women of South Africa.
Starting a business is always a challenging objective, what makes it more challenging is trying to find funding to get your innovative idea of the ground.
Content in this guide
- The Isivande Women’s Fund (IWF)
- Women Entrepreneurial Fund (WEF)
- Business Partners Women in Business Fund
- IDF Managers Funding
- Enablis Acceleration Fund
- The National Empowerment Fund (NEF)
- Absa Women Empowerment Fund
- The Special Projects and Programmes Unit (SPP)
- Women in Oil and Energy South Africa (WOESA)
Funds and Financial Assistance
Here are seven funds and financial assistance programmes as well as two resources for women entrepreneurs in South Africa.
Too Few South African Women Become Entrepreneurs, But This Can Change
Organisations built by business women and that speak loudly and assertively for business women will send an unambiguous message that women belong in the community of entrepreneurs.
Although South Africa’s constitutional democracy has been advocating for gender equality for the past 24 years, the level of entrepreneurship among South African men and women is still far less equal than the country’s economic peers such as Ghana and Uganda. This is an indication that a progressive constitution alone is not enough to ensure that women join the local community of entrepreneurs in equal numbers to men.
Illustrating this, are the latest figures from the 2017/2018 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) which show that 13 out of every 100 South African men are involved in total early-stage entrepreneurial activity, compared to just 9 out of every 100 women.
This research shows that the inequality goes deeper than just the headline figure. A higher percentage of women who do start their own ventures do so out of necessity (34.3 percent for women vs. 18 percent for men), whereas South African men, on the other hand, are more likely to start a business in response to an opportunity (82 percent for men vs. 65.7 percent for women). As research indicates that opportunity-driven entrepreneurs are more likely to create wealth than necessity-driven entrepreneurs, this is definitely an area for improvement for our country.
The GEM study is an annual survey, and dishearteningly, a look at the GEM figures over a number of years shows no discernible trend towards closing the gap, while some of South Africa’s economic peers such as Brazil and Vietnam consistently show an equal number of men and women starting businesses.
Gender parity in entrepreneurship needs a consistent stretch of truly high economic growth, north of 6 percent, to shake lose any remaining cultural, psychological and economic chains that are keeping women back. Unlike its counterparts, South Africa’s economic growth over the past few decades has seldom breached 4 percent – hovering around 3 percent since 1994.
This might also explain the general low levels of entrepreneurship in the South African population, among both men and women, compared to its economic peers – 11 percent of the South African population is involved in entrepreneurial activity. Wealth creating businesses start in response to opportunities, which multiply when economic growth is strong.
Short of a massive economic stimulus needed to propel South Africa’s economic growth upward, is there anything that can be done on an incremental level in order to establish entrepreneurial equality between men and women in South Africa?
I believe that there are many low-key ways in which to entice more women to become entrepreneurs. One place to start, is to focus on the income-generating side-lines that many South African women are engaged in. A scan of social media shows that South African women are not short of ideas nor initiative. From activities that are traditionally seen as female-oriented such as baking and sewing, to truly innovative social clubs and online initiatives seem to provide an outlet for many women’s entrepreneurial urges. Yet too few of them develop into proper full-time careers.
Programmes focused on women and their side-hustles might find fertile ground to grow them into fully fledged businesses.
Another factor that might entice more women to start businesses is more accessible finance. There is no easy solution, however, as research shows that men are more likely to start looking for finance early when they launch their ventures. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to use their own funds to start a business and thus delay seeking finance until their venture is potentially in trouble making it more difficult to secure finance.
The solution, if any, lies in education and training deep enough to effect a significant shift in mind-set. Given the poor state of the educational system, South Africa still has a way to go, but it could be argued that any incremental improvement in the education system would boost the country’s levels of entrepreneurship.
It remains to be seen if an increase in gender equality and representation among bankers and financiers may lead to improved access to finance for female entrepreneurs, but because it is a good thing in itself, gender parity in the finance industry is worth pursuing.
The celebration of female entrepreneurship in popular culture, social media and as part of cultural events remains important and probably cannot be overdone. Awareness of the possibility of success in the business world for females remains fundamental to any young woman’s decision to choose entrepreneurship.
Finally, a strengthening of the profile of women’s business associations in South Africa can become an important factor in increasing the number of female entrepreneurs. Organisations built by business women and that speak loudly and assertively for business women will send an unambiguous message that women belong in the community of entrepreneurs.