Representation Matters, For Women And Girls

As we reflect on these critical insight’s during the global pandemic, we should not lose sight of the work that we can do together to create opportunities, and to celebrate women achievers as role models for a more equal, open and diverse future.

Women mentors must inspire the next generation of women science and tech leaders write Christina Naidoo, COO of Huawei SA in marking The International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2021.

Most of the world’s population are women. It is therefore one of our society’s ongoing injustices that the people who wield power across the planet are overwhelmingly male.

The UN notes that women make up less than 7% of world leaders, and only  24% of lawmakers. This leadership discrepancy extends not just to politics. In almost every industry, men are in positions of power, while women are relegated to junior and support roles.

This is also the case in the fields that will shape the future of humanity – the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. A recent Catalyst survey of gender gaps around the world found that only 29,3% of professionals working in scientific research worldwide were women.

The same survey found that women make up only 16% of managers in the IT industry.

The reasons for this are legacy ones that have been slow to change. Many of us inherit stereotyped views of what gender a scientist or an engineer will be, and this can influence the career paths that young girls choose at school.

Girls tend to perform as well as boys at STEM during the school years. In the USA, a survey of maths and science literacy results found that girls and boys performed almost identically in several assessments over a decade.

However, despite their ability, girls are leaving STEM over the course of their educational trajectory. Men make up a higher proportion of STEM students at university, and ultimately this is reflected in the gender make-up of the science and technology sectors.

Unesco estimates that women account for 53% of the world’s bachelor’s and master’s degree graduates and 43% of PhD graduates. But they make up only 28% of researchers in all fields.

With few female tech leaders, girl children suffer from a lack of women role models, and are thus disinclined to persist with STEM, even when they have a talent for it. Representation matters – in science and technology as much as it does in society, politics and media.

This status quo must be challenged. Not only does the culture need to change, it must be seen to change. Every organisation – in education, and the commercial tech sector – must develop channels to facilitate a path into tech careers. And fundamental to this must be mentors and role models.

Technology shapes our future, and when there is gender bias in our technology sector, there will be a gender bias in society itself. The world is replete with examples of design that favours men, or ignores women – car safety features based on men’s bodies; urban planning that ignores women’s safety needs; and phones and wearable tech that is simply the wrong size.

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2021

We need to celebrate women role models to inspire a change for the future. Several organisations are working to achieve this. Cosmetics company Olay has taken a step in the right direction with its Science In A Box project to assist science teaching in the time of Covid-19 and schooling from home.

South Africa’s Department of Higher Education, Science, Technology honours women technology leaders with its annual South African Women in Science Awards. Winners include people like Professor Michele Ramsay, who has done pioneering research into the genetics of African populations; Dr Sibongiseni Thotsejane, developer of an award-winning business process model in big data analytics; and development and humanities researcher Dr Lunic Base Khoza.

At Huawei, we are deeply conscious of this need for ongoing change and gender transformation.

“Bridging the digital gender divide is not just conducive to an open, inclusive digital environment, but allows for more excellent women to contribute to the advancement of the intelligent world,” she says.

Catherine Chen, Huawei Corporate Senior Vice President and Director of the Board. “We must empower women by giving them more opportunities and skills to compete in the digital economy. Huawei’s Seeds for the Future programme does just this.”

Since its launch in 2008, the programme has benefitted more than 30 000 students, at more than 500 universities across more than 126 countries. In addition, the Huawei ICT Academy trains more than 45 000 students every year, with a growing number of them being women. In South Africa, we have a 50/50 gender split in candidates that are chosen or the programme.

Every year the United Nations marks The International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February, the 2021 Theme: Women Scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, aims to highlight the critical role of women researchers in different stages of the fight against COVID-19, from advancing the knowledge on the virus, to developing techniques for testing, and finally to creating the vaccine against the virus.

As we reflect on these critical insight’s during the global pandemic, we should not lose sight of the work that we can do together to create opportunities, and to celebrate women achievers as role models for a more equal, open and diverse future.

  • Christina Naidoo is COO of Huawei SA

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