Defend Truth


The digital economy has a male gender bias — more investment in girl children is needed


Riyaadh Ebrahim is a social investment specialist at Tshikululu Social Investments.

Women do not have equitable representation in digital spaces. This means that artificial intelligence, social media and other digital spaces are being designed to learn behaviour more by men than by women, and the future workplace will be more welcoming to men than to women.

The United Nations has designated 11 October as the official International Day of the Girl Child, initiated in December 2011 as one of the means of recognising girls’ rights and the unique challenges that girls face around the world. The theme for 2021 was “Digital Generation, Our Generation — a theme chosen on the back of the global Covid-19 pandemic that has inspired accelerated growth of digital platforms in our daily lives.

When scanning the South African landscape, there is limited data on children’s individual usage of digital platforms and it is difficult to draw conclusive evidence of whether there exists a gender gap in digital access for children below the age of 18. Constitutionally and legislatively, there aren’t supposed to be any gender disparities in access to technology and learning institutions do adhere to that equal right access.

In theory, all South African children have equal access to technology (equal access by gender; access to technology for children and adults alike is anything but equal when we look at class divides, but that is a different discussion).

Given equal access, it would then be assumed that the numbers of professionals in the digital sectors of the economy would be about equal as well. This, however, is not the case and is worth investigating. 

In the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report (2018), South Africa ranked 19th globally in terms of its gender gap based on four indices: economic participation; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment. Scandinavian countries dominate the top of the list, followed by a smattering of countries that have quite progressive policies, followed by some of the bigger European economies and then South Africa.

South Africa performs particularly well on education attainment and health and survival, is closer to the global average for economic participation and fares badly on political empowerment. Interestingly, though, enrolment in tertiary education is quite strongly favoured to women, with a ratio of about 1.4 (i.e. for every 10 men in tertiary education, there are about 14 women).

Despite this, when we dig a bit deeper into the stats around the ICT sector, we see a contradictory picture emerging. The Icasa report on the state of the ICT Sector in South Africa estimates that only 10,517 of the total 33,782 jobs in the telecoms sector in 2019 were held by women (31%) and only 10% of top management positions in telecoms were held by black women. This is estimated to be reflective of the broader ICT landscape in South Africa.

It is important to note that globally only around 20% of ICT jobs are held by women and so South Africa is not performing differently, but given our high rankings on gender parity by the World Economic Forum and our liberal Constitution, we should be performing better than the global norm.

Why is this all relevant? Because of representation. Stated simply, women do not have equitable representation in digital spaces. This means that artificial intelligence is being designed to learn behaviour more by men than by women (and more by white North American males than most other groups — there’s a lot of intersectionality here).

It means that digital workplaces (virtual and physical) are dominated by men and continue to be unintentionally exclusionary to women, thus upholding one of the barriers to entry. It means that various social media platforms are not being managed in a way that best suits female users, especially younger women. It means that the decision-makers are largely males and — intentionally and unintentionally — act for the benefit of one gender over another. It means that the future workplace, which is increasingly digital, will be more welcoming to men than to women.

How does this tie back to the International Day of the Girl Child? Digital inclusivity is vital. We have to actively pursue strategies to promote the girl child in the digital sectors of the economy. We have the infrastructure in place to ensure equitable representation (education, access, legislation, etc). Where we are lacking is in motivation. We need a more concerted and coordinated effort to make the ICT sector more appealing to young girls. We need programmes at schools and within communities that promote and are modelled on the idea of women leading technological change. We need to see female teachers championing technology in schools as much as their male counterparts. We need a significant “marketing campaign”.

Social investors have an important role to play in this. This can take many forms, including:

  • Strategic investments into the strengthening of Stem subjects (and promotion of coding and programming subjects) at school level;
  • Support for digital economy bursaries and other scholarships for young women;
  • Careful and deliberate social marketing of women role models;
  • Workplace readiness and job experience programmes to increase exposure; and
  • Support for “pockets of digital excellence” through which all children can equally aspire toward futures in the digital sectors of the economy.

Most social investors already have some footprint in education in South Africa and some of them are working to promote Stem in key target communities. Following the theme of this years’ International Day of the Girl Child, social investors should reflect on how they can further this agenda and achieve a longer-term impact. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Stephen T says:

    What a load of “2+2=5 because reasons”.
    Just because a disparity exists does not automatically mean there’s an oppressive barrier somewhere that we need to divert resources to find and eliminate. All we can do is make sure there are no barriers to entry and let nature do the rest. Superficial disparities like this can be ignored because there will naturally be differences in social groupings and their preferences for certain types of work. Let each be the master of their own destiny rather than wasting time and money trying to find a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    I came across a shocking statistic – 100% of people who gave birth to children in 2021 were women. Women make up approximately 51% of the world’s population, and I want to know what we are going to do about the complete exclusion of males from this act of giving birth.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted