“No country can get ahead if it leaves half of its people behind,” said the US Secretary of State, John Kerry. He was talking about the importance of gender equality, which is something Microsoft takes very seriously, especially in Africa where the gender gap can be wide. It is also an important consideration considering that researchers have found that nations which elect women to their highest office see a GDP increase of up to 6.9% greater than when a male leader is elected. So in the spirit of International Women’s Day on 8 March, with the theme, ‘Make It Happen’, we wanted to highlight the importance empowering women in the tech space and some of the ways in which we are working to make this happen in Africa.
We have some catching up to do
Current trends show that women’s participation in the fields of science, technology, engineering, art and design and mathematics (STEAM) is lagging behind their male counterparts – women only make up 15% of the ICT workforce in Kenya and 18% in South Africa. This is a concern because it is these fields that are driving progress and economic growth. It is equally important that women participate in the fields of art and design, added to the original STEM fields, because these areas are essential for innovation, which is another imperative for growth.
Microsoft is an ardent supporter of women in the STEAM fields, and as a result we are involved in several partnerships and initiatives to give them access to these fields and upskill them to succeed.
Empowering young women at all stages of their careers
As part of our YouthSpark initiative, we launched Aspire Women – a three-year program with the aim of empowering 100 000 young women in the Middle East and Africa through youth leadership, economic empowerment and civic engagement. This includes learning how to code, mentorship programs, drives to employ women from disadvantaged and underserved communities, fostering young women startups and developing volunteer programs, women policy makers and NGO engagement.
Then there are several projects we are working on to further encourage young African female students to chase a career in the technology sector. The 2015 Girls STEAM Camp is a public-private partnership between the US State Department’s LIONS@AFRICA initiative, Microsoft, Intel, Girl Up and the Rwandan Girls Initiative to expand educational opportunities to young Rwandan girls. We also run our own DigiGirlz campaign globally, and have had several camps in Africa. Since its launch in 2000, the programme has engaged with 19 000 female students in the form of workshops and one-day events, where industry professionals interact with participants and discuss innovation in technology and opportunities in the ICT sector.
Mentorship is key
Young women graduates also need guidance and skills development to succeed in the ICT space. In Kenya, 150 female graduates were selected for the EmployMentor programme. We partnered with the African Centre for Women in Information and Communications Technology (ACWICT) in an ongoing project to create a program with one-on-one Skype mentoring sessions and on-the-field training, with our own employees acting as mentors.
Beyond the student realm, it is also important to help female entrepreneurs in the ICT space to grow their businesses. In conjunction with the Association of Women Entrepreneurs (AFEM) in Morocco and INWI, our Cloud Startup Academy is doing just that. The idea of the Academy is to help young women launch innovative startups based on the latest cloud technology, along with strengthening their skills in communication, technology, entrepreneurship and marketing.
The proof is in the success stories
While these programs are ongoing, it is encouraging to see some of the success stories that have come out of initiatives like these already. For example, through a Microsoft YouthSpark programme called Ajegunle.org at Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN), a social enterprise that connects Nigerian youth with ICT-enabled opportunities, Nigerian-born Esther Olatunde learned to be proficient and productive using computers and has become a full-time software developer. Our Aspire Women Women program has also seen several success stories. Neema, a young Egyptian women, went from being a housewife to an entrepreneur with the help of financial training giving her the confidence to expand her small family business. Also in Egypt, Tahey Nabil got career guidance from an initiative called ‘Masr Ta3mal’ and ended up fulfilling a dream to dub cartoon movies.
We believe that young women like Esther have a huge opportunity to fill the growing demand for ICT and business skills across Africa. It is imperative for these young women to acquire the necessary knowledge and skill sets to take advantage of these career opportunities, not only to participate in the global economy and create a more balanced gender distribution in the ICT space, but also because it empowers them to leverage technology to improve their daily lives and uplift their communities. So we urge African and global government, businesses and academic institutions to get involved in making it happen for our young women.