Girls need ICT training to thrive in Fourth Industrial Revolution

“Genuine equality means not treating everyone the same but attending equally to everyone’s equal needs.” — Terry Eagleton, literary scholar, cultural theorist and  distinguished professor of English literature

South Africa has been declared the most unequal country in the world and women remain the most marginalised in terms of economic opportunities relative to men. We have entered into a new era of technology which brings about the changing nature of work and new modes of living. In the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), gender inequality is just as important a problem as was the case in the previous industrial revolutions. 

Little attention is paid to the eradication of 4IR sexism, and even if it is acknowledged on paper, it is not implemented. According to a report by PwC, women occupy just 19% of information and communications technology (ICT)-related jobs. 

The ICT sector is highly unequal in the access to job opportunities for women hence the smaller percentage of women occupying these jobs. Women who are already working in the sector are faced with meagre salaries as compared to their male counterparts. According to a media report by researcher Sibahle Malinga, in 2020, women in the technology industry earned up to 25% less than men.

The initial problem here emanates from society. Young girls do not take part in science-related subjects in high school because of the patriarchal system that perceives women as “caregivers” and not economic contributors. Because of this, some do not complete their studies due to societal expectations. 

These perceptions also limit women’s efforts to become producers of technology.  Gauteng MEC for education Panyaza Lesufi acknowledged how the 4IR will improve the education system of South Africa and said that it will “increase our ability to work and learn from others who are distant in time and location”. I

In a speech during Human Rights Month (March, he emphasised that as the introduction of new technologies may continue to enforce inequalities that occur in society, there is a need for a human rights curriculum in the education sector to promote “inclusive schools” for all learners. 

However, the MEC did not specify how the curriculum will be of benefit to young girls as the 4IR may pose a great threat to their future.

On the other hand, the president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, advocates that, “South Africa must be a more technologically-driven country that finds solutions that move us forward, with 4IR as a pivot for economic recovery”. 

The president also acknowledged that equality for women has been achieved in areas such as the government and the administration of justice, but that accessing equal economic opportunity has been difficult for women to achieve up to the present. 

It becomes tedious when society perceives certain jobs as suitable for men while others are meant for women.

Women are becoming consumers rather than producers of technology in South Africa. This era of technology requires young women to embrace science-related subjects in high school so that they become key manufacturers of technologies that will serve our society. 

In 2020, Statistics South Africa revealed that most of the million domestic workers in the country were women. This confirms the lack of technological knowledge among women in the country. This is cause for concern in a period where technology is taking over, as this may  lead to feminisation of poverty in female-headed households. 

This is because some jobs are losing significance since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Women lose employment as they are most affected by this. Patriarchy is problematic in a country rooted in culture and history of oppression. 

In an article on gender equality, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg, emphasised that gender equality can be achieved if we “change our patriarchal culture”. Indeed, a paradigm shift is required in the way women and the technology industry are perceived in society.

Women’s capabilities are not only limited to nurturing but can also contribute to the growth of the economy. 

The ICT sector has to play a significant role by taking the initiative in including women in the production of new technologies in the country. 

Feminism also has a role to play in ensuring that this is achieved through policymaking. 

The educational sector, together with various companies in South Africa, should create technology-related programmes that will empower and encourage young women to enrol for ICT-related courses in universities. 

LG South Africa and Huawei South Africa partnered with the GirlCode organisation in empowering young girls through technology. This initiative included training young girls in skills related to science, technology, engineering and maths to allow them access to job opportunities in the field. 

The Girls in Tech organisation is also playing a significant role in the provision of technological training.

A paradigm shift is a small but important step toward achieving gender equality in the access to economic opportunities for women in this period of the 4IR. The solution to the growing gender inequality in the ICT sector must be multifaceted and long term and this will require commitment from local community members, policymakers, the ICT and education sectors. 

Some firms and organisations in South Africa, as indicated above, are empowering young women through technological education to achieve gender equality in the era of the 4IR.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Reginah Chauke
Reginah Chauke is a tutor in the sociology department at the University of Johannesburg and an MA candidate in industrial sociology.

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