It is not widely known that the first computer programmer was a woman, Ada Lovelace (1815–1852). She was the first person to publish an algorithm intended to be executed by the first modern computer – the Analytical Engine created by Charles Babbage. However, years have passed and data proves that there are still many fewer women in the technology workforce in most countries. How can a sector that hinges its success on new ideas and innovations evolve unless it is gender inclusive?
I have recently been appointed to lead SAP’s business in Egypt. As a woman leader in a predominantly male-orientated region, this position has made me consider the importance of education, mentoring, and role models in facilitating gender inclusivity and some solutions that might help this problem.
The 2017 Global Gender Gap Index by Statista, which measures disparities between men and women across countries, ranks Egypt at 134 out of 144 countries worldwide, prompting a new wave of government initiatives. Through Egypt Vision 2030, the government is actively trying to increase the participation rate of women in all job market fields to 35%, decrease the unemployment rate among women to 16%, and increase the ratio of female-to-male estimated earned income from 29% to 58%. In June, Egypt’s President, HE Abdel Fattah El Sisi, appointed eight women ministers in the newly formed cabinet, emphasizing the importance and value of women and their contribution to the country.
Similar imbalances are apparent in technology, even in countries such as the United States. A 2015 statistical report from Catalyst.org (a research and strategy development organization), revealed that only 24% of U.S. women were employed in STEM-related fields.
Education is the foundation for empowerment
For an industry desperate for innovative talent, statistics like these should be a motivator and a vital indication that there is growing need for an organizational culture shift that supports women in hiring and career advancement. However, the initiatives cannot stop here, as substantial progress also requires creating awareness among and empowering women.
There is a sizable need to fill the pipeline with more, talented young women. According to Girls Who Code, 74% of high school girls express an interest in STEM subjects, but when choosing a college major, just 0.4% of them select computer science. In my opinion, this huge disparity in numbers is linked, first, to the lack of impactful technology options available in middle school and, second, to STEM’s poor image with girls.
Science and maths have always been perceived as male-dominated fields, and this perception needs to change. Cairo has already established itself as a technology hub that fosters innovation and gives precedence to creativity, such as achieving the Guinness World Record for the largest site with the maximum participation for a Global Game Jam in 2018.
The NASA Space Apps hackathon hosted in Cairo for three consecutive years is another example. The 2017 event specifically called out to women who were influential in the data and maker communities. (The maker community represents a technology-based extension of DIY culture. It stresses new and unique applications of technologies and encourages invention and prototyping. There is a strong focus on using and learning practical skills and applying them creatively.) The hackathon made an added effort to support women-led teams, all in line with the Egyptian government’s vision to encourage and empower Egyptian women to participate in all aspects of life.
The opportunities are undoubtedly there, and it’s up to women to tap into them. The challenges we face may be many, but this is where we as women need to come together, hold hands, and inspire other women to support our professional growth.
The importance of women role models
I came across a recent report by PWC UK, aptly titled “Women in Tech – Time to Close the Gender Gap,” which brought even more surprising revelations to the forefront. Only 22% of students can name a famous female working in technology, whereas two-thirds can name a famous man working in technology.
This fact bought a couple of thoughts to mind: First, how could the world be so unaware of the achievements of our hard-at-work women leaders, and second, could a lack of such knowledge be reinforcing the perception that a technology career is not for women?
Role models are the invisible mentors of society, and learning about women – with their indelible talent, skill, and sheer persistence making a mark in their respective fields – must be included in the school curriculum. Children, especially girls, need to learn about women in key leadership positions in the various fields of their interests.
Besides societal transformation, economists also estimate that bridging the gender imbalance can help countries achieve higher economic growth. But the truth is that changing the way talent is developed requires us to undo age-old thought processes and rebuild our belief system on modern values – especially in the education system.
To realistically redress the gender imbalance, a culture of diversity needs to be embedded in the social consciousness, from parenting and education to professional work environments. Ultimately, it is about changing norms and applying a larger, far-reaching message that celebrates real-world cases of success in bridging the gender gap.
For more on women in technology, see STEM: Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes.