Fighting The Disparity Of African Women In Technology

Susan R. Jones

According to Boston Consulting Group, just about 15% of data scientists are women, an apologetic imbalance in favor of men. In Africa, more women get discouraged to take part in data professions and the enrollment of women in data studies steadily declines. DARA Big Data gives insights into this issue in a report derived from its last five years of free data science hackathons. In 2017, 74% of applicants were male, while 26% were female. This figure grew to 35% in 2019. It explained that not enough women felt comfortable and bold enough to apply for data courses. “Many of the female applicants experience some form of self-doubt in their technical skills that may inhibit them from applying,” the report stated.

This present shortage of female data personnel to analyze and collate statistics on women’s issues gives reason to question how solutions to their systemic and cultural oppression are created and proffered. It also probes if any of the available information, collated by mostly men, represents the true state of events. The lack of specific data on reports of sexual harassment, domestic violence, and discrimination against women in politics, education and the workforce, is a clear indication of this disparity.

Seemingly, the importance of women and girls in reporting and collating data on the biggest challenges Africa faces today and the harmfulness of exclusivity in data dissemination are overlooked. In one example, a trained software with text collected from Google news was asked to complete the statement, “Man is to computer programmer as woman is to [blank].” The trained software replied with “homemaker.” It is almost as if the perspectives of women in solutions development sectors should not exist.

Alexa Ighodaro who has worked on data analysis projects says, “Some people believe data science/analytics to be a field that requires high coding abilities and society has trained us to believe coding is mostly handled by the male gender. There is a perception that data science is a manly profession as it involves statistics and coding.”

In numerous universities across the continent, tech and data faculties have more males contained in them than females at different academic levels. According to Ingressive For Good Africa, there are about two women out of every 10 people studying data science. In organizational settings, female data personnel are almost nonexistent as only 26% of them get employed. Despite the steady rise of data scientists across different regions in Africa, gender parity and equality in the field have not been attained.

To this, Ighodaro believes that universities should be more open to detailing what technical tasks data analysis entails as this would encourage more women to participate. She also thinks that men should be more encouraging to women trying to get onboard in the field. She believes more women should try to excel regardless of how “manly” the role is perceived just like she did.

Recently, there has been a growing increase in the number of organizations spearheading campaigns focused on female inclusivity in critical sectors that proffer tech and data solutions. These organizations are constantly creating and developing projects to advance the involvement of women, sponsoring free course degree programs across different tech sectors, and holding educational seminars on the importance of women’s participation.

Data Science Africa is an initiative established in 2015 to develop a community of researchers who use data science and artificial intelligence to find solutions to varying African problems. Since its establishment at the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology in Kenya, DSA has vastly spread its reach across major regions in the continent. The organization has attained this by guiding data scientists through capacity building and driving projects that utilise data science, AI and machine learning to build broad societal benefits in up to seven African countries.

One task they’ve taken on since their inception has been to ensure female inclusivity through various campaigns, promotions and seminars specifically for women. Last year, the organization held a five-day conference themed “Women and Data Science in Africa”. This conference focused on the need to bring more women into technology fields. It featured several women leaders in data science as key panellists and speakers.

Code for Africa, Africa’s largest civic journalism initiative, created WanaData, a network of women data journalists, scientists and technologists, counting more than 400 members in seven countries across Africa. According to the project’s coordinator, Adaugo Trinitas, “WanaData is passionate about building ecosystems of women technocrats to create a platform for collaboration, networking and access to data analysis and digital storytelling skills that help to amplify their voices in decision-making.”

Speaking at the DSA conference, Trinitas gave insight into the need for more space for women in data journalism and science to address issues of gender parity and equality in Africa. She asserted that women are under-represented in the media, yet the media plays a fundamental role in portraying the challenges women face.

African Women in Tech, DARA Big Data, and SARAO are also organizations pushing for gender parity in the tech sectors. These communities increase access to training for women, promoting participation in events and role modelling active female data scientists during their summer schools and workshops. But are these acts enough to dampen the age-long systems of oppression and aggression towards women’s participation? In all honesty, they’re not.

Through the second world war, women in the U.S. spearheaded the tech industry and were the largest trained technical workforce in the computing industry. They managed and operated large room-sized electromechanical computers that cracked codes, worked out military logistics and made ballistic calculations. But their tasks was viewed as “unskilled, highly feminised work”.

Mar Hicks explains this in his book, Programmed Inequality. Perhaps, if male-dominated workspaces are decolonized and the behavioral responses to women’s work are reformed, the systemic devaluation of their skills would be abolished. Mere campaigns may not be enough if they’re not specifically targeted at male-led and run organisations.

Project manager, business analyst, and founder of TechOps, Ifunanya Moneke, says, “every day felt like I had the most to prove. It felt like I constantly had to prove my worth, that I belonged there.”

“It was very early in my career as an IT Support Analyst. I was handling projects that weren’t part of my job description but were assigned to me because of my keen interest in managing projects. I enjoyed and did remarkably well—I kept getting recognition and accolades for it. It was a lot of heavy lifting, but my male team members would describe it as ‘admins stuff’ to downplay my efforts,” she says.

Moneke thinks that women shouldn’t have to prove they belong anywhere or believe that roles like Project Management and Business Analysis are not ‘technical enough’. She asserts they should be encouraged and equally compensated like their male counterparts.

If more women are allowed to equally contribute to the advancement of Africa’s tech industry instead of being sidelined, the progression of the sector would look much better than its present state.

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