Opinionista Tshilidzi Marwala 22 June 2020

Women need to be at the forefront of digital transformation

Women are still unfairly under-represented in the digital sphere and need to be brought in to give shape to the transformation under way.

Research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that despite statistics indicating that more tertiary graduates are women than men, when you analyse the skills in demand in this digital transformation, women are still unfairly underrepresented. Here, policy still has a crucial role to play. 

Last week the International Women’s Forum South Africa (IWFSA) invited me to speak about the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (PC4IR) and their impact on women. IWFSA is composed of prominent women in South Africa, including Zanele Mbeki, Precious Motsepe, Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka and Irene Charnley, among others. So it was a date not to be missed.

When we talk of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the era we are now entering, there are some broad debates.

First, how do we as a country that has fallen behind in the previous three industrial revolutions make a seemingly quantum leap to the fourth?

Second, why are we so determined to position ourselves at the fore of this transition when even Klaus Schwab, who coined the 4IR term, has admitted that there is the potential to widen our inequalities? Already, South Africa is classified as the world’s most unequal country – so why risk deepening this any further?

Third, in a labour market that favours men over women, why are we looking to adopt technology which could worsen our already wide gender digital gap? As it stands, women in South Africa have lower digital literacy and less access to internet-based technologies than men. These are all very valid concerns. Yet, they collectively call for the implementation of the 4IR – as long as the right policies are in place. We need an enabling framework that addresses our missteps in the previous industrial revolutions, and that seeks to provide solutions to our divides, in every sense, especially concerning women.

Herein lies the crux of the work of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 4IR commission, which was established in 2019 and of which I am a deputy chair. The role of this commission is to assist the government in taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital industrial revolution.

We have a set of eight preliminary recommendations to achieve this.

First, the government needs to invest in human capacity development, primarily focusing on women. This should involve cultivating communication, logical and numeracy skills. These skills are necessary to develop the capacity to code, think computationally and grow a holistic approach to problem-solving. 

The second recommendation is to establish “The National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Institute”. This institute should apply AI to sectors such as health, safety, agriculture, finance, mining and manufacturing. It should be a private-public partnership to ensure that AI skills that are predominantly based in the private sector flow to the public sector. Special focus should be on how AI can be used to prevent gender-based violence.

The third recommendation is to establish an advanced manufacturing institute, which will focus on reversing deindustrialisation in South Africa. Particular focus should be on how more women are brought into manufacturing, not just as workers, but also as owners of the means of production.

The fourth recommendation is the establishment of the National Data Centre, which should focus on developing data storage as well as computing power through systems such as cloud facilities.

The fifth recommendation is to incentivise 4IR industries. These incentives should include tax breaks, assistance with research and development support and a particular focus on women as well as small and medium enterprises.

The sixth recommendation is to build 4IR infrastructure, which integrates with existing economic and social infrastructure. Fast and reliable internet connection is crucial to ensure that all, especially women, have a fair chance of fully participating in the digital economy. 

The seventh recommendation is to review, amend or create policy and legislation in line with the 4IR. These new laws should reduce the barriers for entry into the digital economy by women. In particular, the generation of intellectual property rights stands out in this context as the principle of a creative and knowledge economy implies the rapid production of new technologies, artefacts and processes for commercialisation and scale. This will include relooking at our tax laws so that they bring platform companies such as Uber and Airbnb into our tax regime.

The final recommendation is to establish a 4IR strategy implementation co-ordination council that will co-ordinate government departments responsible for 4IR related programmes. This council should co-ordinate initiatives across the public and private sectors, labour and academia. It will require resourcing and budget allocation aligned to the mandate to ensure that there is a single point of co-ordination with government departments for the council. 

As we navigate the conversation around access and inequity in South Africa, we cannot exclude women from the conversation. Greater access to data and devices, in part, requires backing from our telecommunications sector.

Yet, as we implement these rather broad strategies, we still need to ensure that women are well situated to participate in the digital transformation and to shape it. Research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that despite statistics indicating that there are more women tertiary graduates than men, when you analyse the skills in demand in this digital transformation, women are still unfairly underrepresented. Here, the policy still has a crucial role to play. 

As we navigate the conversation around access and inequity in South Africa, we cannot exclude women from the conversation. Greater access to data and devices, in part, requires backing from our telecommunications sector. Yet, as we bridge this divide, there also needs to be a move towards promoting the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths, as well as data analysis, computer science, engineering and the social sciences, which will ultimately advance numeracy skills – a prerequisite for many jobs in the 4IR. 

If this is the context we are entering into, we need to adapt our education system to one that adequately equips students. This must encompass upskilling, reskilling and providing access to on-the-job training, with a particular focus on the inclusion of women. As we have seen through important conversations around race and gender in recent weeks, there is a fundamental need for diversity in organisations. Part of making this a reality is fighting the biases and the microaggressions that lead to discrimination and quite often, gender-based violence. A viral post that has resurfaced in the past few days states that Lyndsey Scott, a Victoria’s Secret model, is also a software developer proficient in coding. 

However, the comments painted a grim picture of the state of ICT, with her accomplishments downplayed by users based on gender-specific stereotypes.

As many women at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) have often told me, their fight is all fights. As we begin to tease out the debates of the 4IR – from catching up, to bridging our divides, we must do it with women at the fore.

As Scott replied following a list of her accomplishments:

“Looking at these comments, I wonder why 41% of women in technical careers drop out because of a hostile work environment.” In fact, according to the OECD, only 0.5% of girls at the age of 15 wish to become ICT professionals, compared with 5% of boys, while twice as many boys as girls expect to become engineers, scientists or architects. These social norms, if you will, play into broader concerns. This conversation comes as the brutal killing of women in South Africa, once again, makes headlines. 

Part of addressing and preventing this escalation of violence is to address these sexist acts and ideas. It is hardly surprising with these views that a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in 2018 found that science academics endure the highest rate of sexual harassment of any profession outside the military. Many men in the field often fail to link microaggressions and gender-based violence. Yet, it is a twin scourge. There has to be a collective effort to address every one of these challenges to begin bridging the digital divide and ensuring that women are at the fore of this shift.

As many women at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) have often told me, their fight is all fights. As we begin to tease out the debates of the 4IR – from catching up, to bridging our divides, we must do it with women at the fore. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said:

“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”

I would argue that this rings true for every facet of our society, right down to the policies we create. DM

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