08 March 2023

The United Nations declared its theme for International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8 March as “DigitAll: Innovation and Technology for gender equality”.

Technology is of profound significance in today’s world. It has revolutionised virtually every aspect of our lives. Yet, there is a vast digital divide, with many people unable to access and benefit from technology such as internet connectivity. These inequalities can have significant consequences for access to education, healthcare, work opportunities and the like, and reinforce and exacerbate social exclusion and inequality.

Women in particular are compromised in unlocking the full potential of technology. The United Nations says there are growing inequalities in digital skills and access to technologies, with women being left behind as the result of a digital gender divide.

The Executive Director of UN Women, Ms. Sima Bahous, warns of a new kind of discrimination and poverty women may experience as the digital age advances. She notes that in 2022 there were 259 million more men than women using the Internet – and that it was not a safe space for women. Women journalists for example particularly suffer online violence in the course of their work. In STEM education, women are grossly under-represented, as they are as workers in artificial intelligence (AI). AI systems also demonstrate gender bias because of the lack of diversity among developers and embedded gender stereotypes and assumptions. There is therefore a need for inclusive and transformative technology and digital education.

Despite the barriers and challenges that limit the access of women to technology, many have broken through and excel in a variety of relevant fields.

A 2017 PwC UK research report highlighted the need for visible role models to help redress the gender digital divide. “You can’t be what you can’t see” it said. Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation spotlights some women among its partner entity programmes that are inspirational in their roles with digital technology.

Siyamtanda Hlobo, who was named one of Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans, is a participant in Black Umbrellas’ Enterprise and Supplier Development accelerator programme. Black Umbrellas is a partner entity of Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation that supports the development of small Black-owned businesses.

Siyamtanda’s company, Eleglam Business and Digital Solutions, provides business development and advisory services to entrepreneurs and start-ups. The lockdown ocassioned by the Covid-19 pandemic led to a life-changing opportunity for Siyamtanda. She  took an online web development course and was susequently contacted to develop a website for a family, garage-based business. This led to the establishment of her company which designs websites for small businesses and advises on the use of social media and online customer engagement.

Pontso Nkosi is a 23-year-old from Devon, a settlement in the Sedibeng District Municipality in Gauteng, who works as an Information Technology (IT) technician in support of teachers at a local school. The support programme is an initiative of the Foundation’s Whole School Development (WSD) partner entity, Adopt-a-School. It trains and places unemployed young people as desktop support technicians in schools to meet the need for dedicated and readily available technical support. The youth IT technicians typically go on to be self-employed, providing support to the community after two years with a school.

As a female practitioner in the field, Pontso celebrates this year’s International Women’s Day theme, which she read about on Facebook.

“Women are now more free to express themselves and allowed to take part in technology and digital careers,” she says. But women still face obstacles and challenges that are limiting, she says, including being judged by the irrelevancy of the way they dress.

Pontso and Siyamtanda are inspirational role models for the likes of Phethisang Makhethe, a learner at a school supported by another of the Foundation’s partner entities, KST, which implements a District WSD model in the Fezile Dabi District in the Free State. Phetisang’s passion is to study Digital Systems when she reaches university. She believe digital technology will assist African economies to overcome their challenges and grow and become sustainable.

On this International Women’s Day, Cyril Ramaphosa Foundation celebrates these role models and recommits to the ongoing struggle for gender equity and against the “new kind of discrimination and poverty” women may experience in the defining digital age. The Foundation joins the call to make the digital world safer, more inclusive, more equal.