/ 31 August 2022

If we want more women tech execs, change is needed at every level

Christina Naidoo, COO, Huawei South Africa

As a woman executive at a major technology firm, I am something of a rarity. That’s not exactly an industry secret. It’s also not a uniquely South African problem. According to this year’s World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, women hold less than a quarter of global tech leadership positions. 

Over the years, there have been any number of solutions put forward when it comes to increasing gender parity in technology leadership. Many of those solutions, including getting more girls into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects and increasing women-led mentorship in the workplace, have serious merit to them too.    

But in order for real change to take place, it needs to happen across the board. And in South Africa, that starts with closing the digital divide. 

Improving access 

While statistics show that South Africa has made significant ground when it comes to internet connectivity — 80% of people now have access — there are still significant differences in the speed and quality of those connections. According to Statistics South Africa’s (Stats SA’s) most recent General Household Survey (GHS), for example, less than 10% of households had fixed internet access at home. The rest rely on mobile internet access or connections at their places of work, study, internet cafés and public hotspots. 

But there’s also a gender gap. Across sub-Saharan Africa, women are 13% less likely to own a mobile phone and 37% less likely to access the mobile internet than men. While those figures may be slightly better in South Africa given the advanced nature of the country’s economy, they are still instructive. It’s also worth noting that, in South Africa, 5% more men make online transactions than women, illustrating that the digital gender divide is real even among those who can afford to make online purchases.

Inclusivity at all levels 

There is, fortunately, much being done to close the broader digital divide with large-scale investment, bringing quality connectivity to more and more people. Telecommunication operators are also fully embracing technologies such as 5G, bringing opportunities for further industry transformation. But as South Africa’s economy becomes increasingly digitised, it cannot afford for women to be left behind as the divide is closed. 

It’s therefore imperative to ensure that there’s a focus on inclusivity at all levels from primary school upwards. The inclusion of coding and robotics in the national primary school curriculum from 2023 is a good start in this regard, but it’s critical that all schools are given the tools and connectivity needed to make it viable. It’s also crucial that girls are given equal encouragement to pursue these subjects. 

Unless that happens, the country will continue to see disproportionately low numbers of female ICT graduates. While South Africa (at 38%) has a higher percentage of female ICT graduates than the global average (30%), it’s still well below the gender parity we should aim for. That lack of parity filters into the workplace, where women occupy just 23% of ICT jobs.   

That is in no one’s best interests. The technology space is essentially about innovation — creating and developing new solutions to improve people’s lives. We can only do this optimally when women are intimately involved in the innovation process. 

At Huawei, we recognise the importance of addressing both the broader digital divide and the gender divide. In 2020, for example, we committed to providing more than 100 primary schools around South Africa with internet connectivity. We have also factored gender representation into our various graduate and student empowerment programmes that target 50% female students. 

Repairing the broken rungs 

It’s not enough, however, to simply get more girls and women into the ICT space. It’s also important to retain them and ensure that they reach positions of leadership. According to recent research from McKinsey, women in technical roles are almost half as likely to be promoted in their early careers as their male counterparts. The report notes that, “women hold only 34% of entry-level engineering and product roles and just 26% of first-level manager positions, compared with 48% of entry-level roles and 41% of first-level manager positions in the pipeline overall”.

Without those early promotions, the ladder to technological success is effectively broken for women. Given that companies with greater levels of gender diversity tend to significantly outperform those that don’t, it’s also something that would be in their own interests to rectify.       

The same would broadly hold true for the country. We can make a much bigger dent in things such as skills development and employment if the digital divide is closed at all levels, from the home to education and the workplace. 

The theme for Women’s Month 2022 is “Women’s Socio-Economic Rights and Empowerment: Building Back Better for Women’s Improved Resilience” and links South Africa to the global aim of achieving gender equality by 2030. It’s a laudable and necessary aim. But in order to achieve it, closing the digital gender divide is an absolute imperative.

Christina Naidoo is COO, Huawei South Africa 

About Huawei 

Huawei is a leading global provider of information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure and smart devices. With integrated solutions across four key domains — telecom networks, IT, smart devices and cloud services — we are committed to bringing digital to every person, home and organisation for a fully connected, intelligent world. 

Huawei’s end-to-end portfolio of products, solutions and services are both competitive and secure. Through open collaboration with ecosystem partners, we create lasting value for our customers, working to empower people, enrich home life, and inspire innovation in organisations of all shapes and sizes. 

At Huawei, innovation focuses on customer needs. We invest heavily in basic research, concentrating on technological breakthroughs that drive the world forward. We have more than 180 000 employees, and we operate in more than 170 countries and regions. Founded in 1987, Huawei is a private company fully owned by its employees.

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