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Reflecting on the Fourth Industrial Revolution from a young woman’s point of view

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Glenda Daniels, an associate professor of media studies at Wits University, sits on the executive of Sacomm, the Press Council and Sanef. These views are her own.

It’s easy to be cynical about 'the Fourth Industrial Revolution' in SA. After all, what 4IR in such an unequal society, with power cuts and a huge digital divide?

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

And now we are number one in the world – for the highest unemployment rate. There’s another number one: the outrageous costs of broadband, higher than any other developing country in the world. However, not unique to SA are the overlaps with everywhere else, i.e. the dark side of the internet, that is, cybermisogyny, and misinformation, which spreads like wildfire.

Yet, despite the failings of the state, government and ruling party chaos and shenanigans, optimistic things are happening, and alternative powers are emerging, at the level of civil society, media, research, academe.

Here are five reflections:

First, when I moderated a Wits School of Governance (WSG) seminar recently on Women in the Fourth Industrial Revolution to discuss the gender gap, exclusion, digital literacy, encouraging young women to enter spaces in maths, science and technology, to become leaders, pioneers and change-makers, I gained new perspective and insights.

All three panellists (a South African, Nolu Gqadu, an award-winning technology professional; a Kenyan, associate professor Geci Karuri-Sebina at WSG; and Linda Ansong, a Ghana-based social entrepreneur, cofounder and executive director at STEMbees Organization) commented on how no one looked like them in their tech spaces. But they plodded on with determination to change the spaces, to make a difference for younger women to enter the tech world. In the seminar, all noted the gender pay gap, how men earned more than women in tech, and how hard it was to find time to mentor and coach, yet this must be done, even if it’s each one take just one, you make a difference. Other issues that were discussed include the stereotyping, sexism, digital divide (the haves and the have-nots), but an optimistic takeaway, for me, was that we mustn’t forget that young women are already exposed to tech and are engaged in the 4IR. They are, in so many ways, connected via and using technology, whether it’s on social media platforms or through academic endeavours.

Second, a good icebreaker for starting a new class these days is to talk about the Covid-19 era’s online teaching and learning experience. Because I am sick and tired of it, “Zoom fatigued out”, I thought we could all whinge and whine together and this would be bonding. All of them said, yeah sure, sometimes there is “unstable connection” and yes, sometimes we miss seeing our friends during the week, but all of them, 100%, said the opposite of what I expected to hear. They prefer the online method of learning, as they “save on transport time and costs” and could “access the seminar wherever, on their phones” and were “never late for class”. They could even go back a few days later, rewind and pause after the live lecture gets posted, if they thought I had said something particularly interesting.

Third, Zoomed out as I am, I listened to the inaugural lecture of Prof Tawana Kupe, vice-chancellor at the University of Pretoria, on New Media, New Society: Reimagining Media and Society in a Disrupted Age, where he said “the opportunity is now for change in the media ecosystem” to give the majority of people freedom of expression; how media itself could and should be contributing towards a just society and planet; how freedom of expression and media freedom must not be conflated. Some of the questions Kupe raised included: How does it work for all to have access and voice? Does media question or maintain the current social order? What is the current social order? Is there more voice, plurality and diversity or more homogeneity? These are relevant philosophical questions to ponder in the current age of inequality. And nothing brings us back to the realities of inequality more than gender inequality, of course.

Fourth, a civil society organisation, Gender Links, has just done research, the Southern Africa Gender Attitude Survey, which showed that gender attitudes in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are gradually changing for the better, but evidence of deep-seated patriarchal attitudes is still strong. The research shows that, while 60% of women and men in the SADC region agree or strongly agree that “women and men should be treated the same”, 68% agree or strongly agree that “a woman should obey her husband”.

These were findings from a study which encompassed 34,323 women and men of all age groups in 15 SADC countries between January 2019 and May 2021.

Fifth, another superbusy civil society organisation, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), does constant research on media, misinformation and gender. About women’s voices, or lack thereof, in the media, MMA seems to consistently find that women represent only about 21% of all sources quoted on different issues. This is definitely a pessimistic finding. But then again, over the past two or so years, a new player, Quote This Woman+ (quotethiswoman.org.za), has entered the civil society space. This is an expert directory for women in health, medicine, science, technology, the environment, energy – in fact every sector in society. Media can find diversity, including women’s voices, if they want to.

In conclusion, a lot happens in SA – in the civil society, research and media space, despite government and ruling party failings. Uneven development exists, and progress is slow, but there is progress. Civil society organisations, media, researchers and academics can all be activists in the space of creating a more just and equal society, through a feminist gaze.

When we do a Fourth Industrial Revolution gaze, let’s do it from the gaze of young women – entering the space, being digitally literate, having role models in all sectors, learning that they can make maths, science, technology and media their space. Breaking stereotypes is my number one takeaway as I reflect on the 4IR. Alternative voices and power must be harnessed. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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