On the 13th of April 2017, UNESCO participated in the New African Woman Forum in Dakar in order to highlight the importance of promoting women’s and youth leadership in the technology sector in Africa. Bringing together leaders from business, academia and civil society and key decision makers from the public and private sectors, the aim of the forum, in which UNESCO is a partner, was to find innovative solutions and strategies to enable sustainable transformative growth in Africa, putting gender equality at the center.
In the framework of UNESCO’s partnership with the New African Woman Forum, Marema Toure Thiam moderated the panel discussion “Women in Tech: Supporting African Growth through Technology,” bringing together leaders in the technology sector and partners of UNESCO’s YouthMobile Initiative on the Continent to discuss challenges and opportunities women have in pursuing careers in the ICT Sector. In developing countries, up to 43% fewer women have access to internet than men. Underlining that women are major actors in economic and social life in both developed and developing countries, Mrs. Thiam encouraged the audience to reflect on the ways access to technology can lead to economic freedom and women’s empowerment in Africa.
“We need to highlight, through media platforms, success stories of women in technology so that decisionmakers can see them and make needed change in ICT policies and programmes,” underlined Mariam Tendou Kamara Diop, CEO of BAANTOU and Founder of Inter’Actes-MadameDigital. Underlining that 90% of jobs in Africa are created by entrepreneurs, making the role of the digital economy in African growth undeniable, and recognizing the economic impact women have in both the informal and formal sector, Mariam Diop noted that though women inject 90% of their income into their families and communities, their greatest barrier is that they often do not have access to funding opportunities or formal training necessary for future success. This is crucial as 50-60% of women are engaged in international commerce but without access to technology to make tracking, invoicing, and other activities more efficient, and therefore their businesses suffer.
“When you say the word ‘geek’ you think about a guy with glasses who spends all night in front of a computer, and you don’t think of a young woman. This idea needs to be changed so people understand technology is not a male-dominated field,” added Djiba Diallo, Head of Innovation for Microsoft4Afrika. Currently working on challenging stereotypes of women in technology in order “to demystify the notion of women in technology,” Djiba Diallo underlined that Microsoft4Afrika currently supports 80 start-ups in Africa, with only 5 directed by women, making up less than 10% of tech start-ups they have supported in Africa. Emphasizing that there is work to be done to encourage women entrepreneurs in the digital economy, Diallo outlined three pillars necessary for technological advancement in Africa; 1) encouraging access to technology; 2) capacity building, and 3) supporting women innovators on the Continent. Proposing Microsoft’s DigiGirlz initiative specifically developed to involve young girls in the ICT field from a young age, Diallo reiterated Microsoft’s commitment to partnering with actors on the Continent to ensure the bridging of the gendered digital divide and combat ongoing stereotypes in the ICT sector.
Gnima Diop, Marketing Manager at Maersk Line, emphasized the need to recognize that encouraging digital literacy is crucial, especially when between 50-60% of the informal economy in Africa is female. As mobile internet access and use continues to increase on the Continent, Gnima Diop underlined the need to ensure access to information for all. Smartphone ownership and locally relevant applications can be a key to women’s empowerment, shattering their isolation and unleashing their powers. But enabling them to make mobile apps themselves can give them an even bigger push as it enriches their skillset, creates job opportunities and gives them a platform in emerging digital economies. Mobile Technology could help lift 5.3 million women out of illiteracy by 2020.
“The Senegalese woman is a natural entrepreneur,” said Rokhaya Solange Mbengue Ndir, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at Orange-Sonatel. In the framework of her work, and through initiatives such as Mwoman, hackathons, coding camps, and prizes for women’s digital entrepreneurship, Sonatel centralizes the importance of making digital literacy education available to women of all ages. A continuing impediment to this goal, she underlined, is women’s lack of self-confidence. Committed to changing stereotypes and prejudices, including educational choices available to young women and a prevalent idea that women are not “made” for technology, Rokhaya Solange Mbengue Ndir underlined the Sonatel’s corporate strategy in line with the UN’s HeforShe campaign, and emphasized the need to involve Governments, policymakers, and decisionmakers in the discussion to ensure institutional support at the highest level for gender equality in the ICT Sector.
“In order for women to help other women succeed we need to remove obstacles that hinder these efforts,” affirmed Karim Sy, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Jokkolabs. He noted the importance of integrating a cultural approach when talking about gender equality in the tech world in order to create sustainable change. Underlining that the educational systems of many countries haven’t changed in more than 50 years, Karim Sy stressed that in order to ensure sustainable change, countries must “rethink education” in order to equip young people with the necessary skills for the changing world of work in Africa, including digital competencies.
In the debate with participants of the Forum, women from across the Continent underlined the need to encourage mentorship between women in the ICT Sector, and the need to link creativity and technology specifically as it concerns possible solutions mobile applications can provide developed by women on the Continent to address local challenges. Mobile technology has become a medium for women’s empowerment, activism and an engine for change. The number of mobile internet connections is rapidly increasing in developing countries and smartphones are often the only computer people in developing countries have. This connectivity can have a profound impact on all aspects of a woman’s life, particularly the world of work, allowing them to create solutions to personal challenges and problems faced by the local community and reach economic empowerment.
Participants further called on UNESCO, through the Organization’s policy work as co-chair of the Internet Governance Forum and participation in the Broadband and Gender Working Group of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, to continue to document and disseminate best practices that promote gender equality in order to bridge the digital divide.
Participants further called on UNESCO to ensure young people, and particularly young women, are equipped with the necessary skills and confidence to develop, promote, and sell locally relevant mobile applications through the Organization’s YouthMobile Initiative, which aims to create employment opportunities and solutions in different fields such as agriculture, health and education to contribute to the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
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