With the world celebrating International Girls in ICT Day, Huawei South Africa has underlined the importance of supporting female students in the technology sector.
International Girls in ICT Day is an initiative of the International Technology Union (ITU), where it works with partners, including Huawei, to build awareness about the gender digital divide, support technology education and skills training, and encourage more girls and young women to actively pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM).
“Globally, women are still dramatically underrepresented in information and communication technology (ICT),” says Christina Naidoo, Chief Operations Officer of Huawei South Africa.
“Improving that representation means encouraging young women to study technology and stay in the field once they graduate.”
To that end, Huawei South Africa’s bursary programme is important, this year the company is supporting 48 students across five universities with seven million rand in bursaries.
“Many girls are passionate about technology, but without recognition, they may become discouraged and drop out,” says Naidoo. “That’s why we try to ensure that a significant number of our bursaries go to women and that they have the best possible shot at long, fulfilling careers in ICT when they graduate.”
The need for that recognition is underlined by the experiences of some of the bursary recipients.
“‘Why are you studying this course, you’re a girl?’ is, unfortunately, a question I have been asked before,” says Fezile Mahlangu, a computer science student at the University of the Witwatersrand.
“I did not know how to react to that question, it rendered me absolutely speechless.”
According to Anushka Monema, who is also completing a computer science degree at Wits, “it is quite common for you to be looked down on, or for your skills and abilities to be doubted by not just men in the field, but women too because you are a female. We, as women, are on this constant journey of trying to prove our worth.”
That sentiment is echoed by Blessing Nukeri, a University of Cape Town Electrical and Computer Engineering student:
“In engineering, the gender gap is overwhelming,” she says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been the only girl in a group project and that is when imposter syndrome reaches its peak. You always feel the pressure that you have to work extra hard so that you don’t perpetuate the gender stereotypes.”
Mahlangu has taken the sexism she faces head-on:
“I decided to kick it right in the face,” she says. “Be direct and candid about it and tell whoever is asking me such horrendous questions that they are sexist. Question if it is actually a perpetuation of misogyny. Ask them then and there how my biological sex has anything to do with my individual capabilities of doing my course and being good at it because turns out I actually am.”
For Monema meanwhile, excelling makes a powerful statement.
“Overcoming these issues takes a lot of courage, perseverance and strength, and serious gall,” says Monema. “I would struggle with my assignments, on my own majority of the time, because I wanted to learn, to get good at my subjects. I would put myself through this pain because I knew it was worth it. I knew that, at some point, my hard work and commitment would pay off.”
When it comes to advice for girls in STEM courses, the bursary recipients suggest that they ensure that they’re certain about belonging in the ICT space.
“My advice to girls in STEM courses is to simply keep your head up, very high,” says Mahlagu. “Set ablaze with feminist fury. Demand respect. Tip the scales.”
“We are already at a disadvantage, it will take time before it is fully rectified,” says Monema. “Accept that not everyone will look past your gender in your field. Do not try to be better than a man, we are not competing against them, try to improve on an individual basis. Be good at what you do, not to surpass someone else, but to surpass your expectations for yourself.”
“You have to push past gender stereotypes, don’t let them define your self-worth or capabilities. Being a minority can be frightening but you just have to make yourself comfortable in an uncomfortable situation,” adds Nukeri. “Moreover, work on your skills. The more knowledge you have the more confident you become and the less incompetent you feel. And finally, I would say that surround yourself with people who are going through the same thing and network as much as you can.”
Carrying those attitudes into a workplace where women are still in the minority is going to be important. According to a 2020 study by Women in Tech, only 23% of tech jobs are held by women in South Africa. Out of 236 000 ICT (tech) roles, women occupy 56 000 of them.
Then again, being in a minority is nothing new to these students. Despite South Africa being ranked 18th out of 144 countries in the 2021 Gender Gap Report, just 13% of STEM graduates are women.
“There are major incentives to bridging the digital gender divide,” says Naidoo. “It 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.”
“We must therefore empower women by giving them more opportunities and skills to compete in the digital economy. That empowerment starts with education, which is why Huawei’s has invested so heavily in our bursary programme,” she concludes.