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An equal byte of the apple: Fairness, opportunity and the role of women in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

What’s the connection between voice commands that couldn’t be recognised, airbags that would kill rather than save, artificial hearts too heavy for the chests they were meant for, the low availability in marginal communities of sanitary towels, and a quarter of the people holding tech jobs? The answer is a single word – women.

We’re living at the time of a global watershed, and there’s a revolution happening around us – the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), to be exact, and although it’s changing everything, it’s not necessarily changing everything for everybody in the same way. While there are certainly global inequities in access to technology, with communities in the developed world experiencing things very differently from those in developing countries, within those disparities is another, universal disparity, one felt almost equally in every country – the disparity between men and women as agents, workers, and contributors in the world of technology.

And that brings us to the voice commands that couldn’t be recognised – because they were at first developed by men with men in mind. It brings us to airbags that were for decades designed for the male and not the female body, and the artificial hearts that could not be accommodated in the thoracic cavities of women. In short, it brings us to the glaring fact that worldwide, consistently, only around twenty-five percent of the tech workplaces are filled by women.

And that brings us to the tragic fact that apart from the economic difficulties in getting an education in developing communities, most often it’s the girls that suffer the most. They’re the ones who have to miss school for lack of sanitary towels. They’re the ones who have to struggle twice as hard to make their voices heard. They’re the ones who have to overcome deep-seated cultural and historical prejudices and customs. Last in the queue in so many ways, crucially, they’re the ones who are most certainly last in the queue for obtaining an education in the so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

And that’s one of the critical things that the University of Johannesburg, (UJ) wants to see changing. That’s because UJ, as a leading African academic and research institution, knows that as long as those basic educational rights and opportunities are not granted to girls, there will be a dearth of women in the technical world that is going to define the tomorrows of all of us. And that means an inherent imbalance – one that not only denies half the population of the chance of a role in the future, but it denies the future of all the population, of the possibility of benefitting from talent that will never see the light of day.

That’s why UJ is committed not just to interrogating the educational aspects of 4IR. It is committed to all its aspects that pertain to our social, technological, economic and ethical lives as we progress into the 21st Century. And that means a sustained contribution through research, innovation as well as practical and ethical leadership.

As a thought-leader on our continent, UJ understands that if true African participation in the development of 4IR is to be meaningful and relevant, it is going to have to find ways of encouraging, first and foremost, the participation of women.

Moreover, as an institution at the forefront of innovative teaching and learning, UJ is acutely aware that if that kind of movement is to happen, it needs to begin with education. UJ understands that it’s not just through education in STEM that girls must gain confidence, exposure, and a sense that they can realise their full human potential as they grow into adulthood. It’s also through a resocialisation of the societies and communities in which we all live, be they developed or developing, rural or urban. Old attitudes and gender-bound perceptions about jobs, careers and needs will need to be questioned, not just to keep pace with the technological change, but to help drive it – societally, technically, educationally and economically.

And if all that will need to be questioned, then the answers, the ideas, and the agenda, need to be framed and discussed now, so that the future will be the one we all want it to be, for all of us.

An important part of that questioning conversation is the series of online Cloudebate™ discussions that UJ has been hosting so successfully. It’s in honour and celebration of Women’s Month, that UJ’s fourth Cloudebate™ of 2020 will be taking place, and everyone’s invited. All you need to do to participate is to register here, and the join the discussion on 16 September at 18:00 to take part.

So, if you’re a person who wants to see that fairness, equal participation and unfettered opportunity produce a better world for us as individuals, and collectively as societies, then take this opportunity to add your voice. Help give women a voice where it most needs to be heard – in the future.

Join UJ in looking carefully, critically and positively, at how governments, educational institutions, NGOs, businesses and individuals can come together to ensure that the things that are changing, are indeed changing for the better, for all of us, by including all of us, women and men, with equal weight, opportunity, exposure and possibility. Also, meet some of the women who are taking the lead in the 4IR race.

At UJ, the potential of the human imagination is uppermost in everyone’s mind. The future is central to all the teaching, learning and research that happens across its four vibrant campuses. And when those two concepts are put together, as UJ does on a daily basis, the result is a chance for everyone to be a part of reimagining the future. DM



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