The Covid-19 pandemic has without a doubt accelerated digital transformation around the world, but while the rapid advancement of the Fourth Industrial Revolution threatens to widen the digital divide for those without suitable access to the internet, it is women and girls who stand to lose the most if cultural and behavioural norms around technical careers are not changed.

The statistics revealing participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers are worrying, demonstrating a clear bias toward males, who make up 68% of STEM graduates. Women and girls make up the most vulnerable portions of the unskilled, low-income market, with low levels of access to both the internet and data. Making up the majority of either domestic or unskilled workers, women and girls are unable to afford data that would facilitate online participation and skills development.

At least 22-million South Africans do not have access to the internet, according to business data platform Statista. Of those who do have access and can forge a career in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, 95% who go on to reach managerial positions are male. This is substantially lower than the 32% of managerial positions across the economy held by women.

Meanwhile, of the 22% of South African ICT graduates who are female, only 2.9% go on to have careers in the ICT industry. According to research by PwC, women hold 19% of tech-related jobs at the world’s top 10 technology companies and hold 28% of leadership positions at those companies. The World Economic Forum has found that there are five males to every two women working in the ICT sector globally.

Cultural and behavioural drivers are cited as reasons for the demographic distortion. Gender norms, stereotypes, biases and sexual harassment are the most common reasons for girls and women to abandon potential careers in technical fields. Economic disadvantage is compounded by social factors.

Technology company M4Jam is headed by CEO Georgie Midgley, who says a career in tech can be lonely as a woman. “The gap is far from being bridged and though there are obstacles to the advancement of women in every industry, tech seems like a particularly male-dominated field. It’s very difficult to break through, but this is where women need to work together to support each other.”

Midgley acknowledges that the work needs to begin in schools, where stereotyping takes hold. “Technology is becoming an integral part of school education and I’m encouraged by initiatives like GirlCode, which seek to mentor girls interested in ICT careers and provide the support necessary to see them through training and development.”

In the workplace, Midgley says the pandemic has also unlocked possibilities for women now that working from home has become the norm – especially for ICT workers, for whom an office is not necessary. “The remote working setup has made flexitime an acceptable mode of working, which has enabled more women to continue working, be a mother to their children and manage their homes.

“Previously, mother’s guilt was prevalent, but I have personally sat at my kids’ swimming gala and worked on a Teams call, being as productive as if I were in the office. It has helped with breaking down barriers as caregivers and finding balance.”

Looking to the future of women in ICT, Midgley says the main goal should be the prevention of loss of confidence among women in the sector. “At some point, many women in tech seem to lose confidence in the face of male-dominated workspaces. While we see men take chances even if they’re not ready, we as women  are more cautious and less self-assured.

“Women need to support each other and build each other up to embrace challenges and leap ahead in the same way.

“I hope to see more female senior leaders and CEOs coming through the ranks, but it does start at grassroots level. Parents, teachers and mentors have an integral role to play in breaking stereotypes and encouraging girls who are interested in pursuing technical careers,” Midgley says.