Re-thinking existing models: Addressing gender barriers to digital skills training and entrepreneurship support

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Witten by Maeva Yrio

Coalition for Digital Equality (CODE) is a global network working collaboratively to bridge the digital gender divide in Africa. We held the CODE Forum on 20th of January which brought together digital ecosystem stakeholders, academic and industry partners from Ghana, Uganda, the UK and across the globe to share ideas and discuss how the African digital gender gap can be addressed. Below are some insights that emerged from our panel discussion on African digital skills and entrepreneurship programmes with Favour Nma Ozichukwu (iSpace), Gideon Brefo (HapaSpace) and Maryanne Karamagi (SilverBolt). You can also watch the full discussion here.

Our panel experts shared with us their experience in the field and exposed the numerous challenges that African women encounter when it comes to applying, participating and completing digital programmes.

All panellists agreed on the impact that cultural and mindset barriers have on women’s perception of themselves and their ability to take advantage of digital opportunities. “Rules are defined from the onset” stated Gideon Brefo. Little girls play with dolls and little boys with computing kits. While growing up, those stereotypes are reinforced both at school and at home. Some parents and teachers are not encouraging girls to pursue careers in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector since they believe it is a man’s world and that women do not have what it takes to survive. Therefore, from a very young age women are socialised into believing that ICT is not for them. This, coupled with a lack of support at home — be it parental consent, financial or partner support — and within the school system, contributes to many women dropping out of ICT courses or choosing other career paths.

Another key issue that is seen to deter women from getting into ICT is the lack of role models. Maryanne Karagami pointed to the fact that there is only a small number of successful women in ICT who girls can look up to and be inspired by. She further notes that many of these female ICT role models are academics, which is positive for women aspiring to become one but less encouraging for others looking to build a career in a more practical job within the ICT sector (data analyst, software developer etc.).

Lastly the fear of the unknown was also mentioned as a significant challenge for women entering digital programmes. Many girls do not know how they are going to use the knowledge they gained from these programmes and often move away from ICT once they are completed. Others simply join these courses to pass the time as they seek out other job opportunities. This demonstrates that the ICT sector remains quite abstract for a lot of women who often end up self-selecting out of this career path mainly because the end goal is not clear.

It was noted that existing programme models and practices may in some ways contribute to the barriers faced by women especially because they are not adapted to local needs. Our panel experts presented some practical solutions they have implemented to foster women and girls’ participation in STEM and ICT programmes.

STEM or ICT initiatives that are not tailored to real life problems can often limit girls and women in their career development . “Even when you have girls who may be interested for example in pursuing electrical engineering for example, they may think that they can only become electricians. There is no exposure to what opportunities exist at the tail end of it all and that is a major problem” highlighted Maryanne Karamagi. At SilverBolt, the aim is to make STEM relevant for local communities and problems. They are going about this by reaching out to girls from different communities or social backgrounds and sharing practical examples that girls can relate to. Therefore, from the start, girls understand what role STEM can concretely play in their communities and how they too can contribute.

Gideon Brefo noted the tendency within the sector to use “borrowed models” such as incubators and accelerators simply because programme funders are familiar with their supposedly efficient designs.. He adds that while these models may have worked elsewhere in the world, they need to be tailored to the local context in order to be successful in Africa. In particular, there is a need to give participants locally relevant, tangible goals to work towards. HapaSpace has integrated this concept into its programmes by creating real world projects which participants can work on over the course of their training. Thus participants already know what they are going to achieve and are able to put what they are learning into practice straight away.

Favour added that at ISpace, they too put an emphasis on making the programme’s end goal explicit to their participants. The aim of their training is to equip participants with the necessary sets of skills and create a collaborative environment from which successful businesses can emerge. ISpace offers three different streams — business, creative design and technology — that women can choose from. Far from operating in silos, those streams are used to create synergies between participants via a “speed dating” process. This unique design aims at bringing together all the trainees in order to utilize their diverse range of skills while working on their business ideas and to build sustainable relationships. This innovative method enables women to leave the programme with tangible gains: the possibility to build their start-up from the end of the program and an extensive network of partners.

A collective effort from all stakeholders involved — businesses, parents, teachers, governments, NGOs — is needed to foster change and bridge the digital gender divide.
The role of the private sector, as we saw with the work of organisations like ISpace, Silver Bolt and HapaSpace, appears crucial as it can act faster than governments when it comes to execution. However, to see long term change, the momentum from businesses alone is not enough. The role of Governments, for example through the provision of better training for teachers, financial support for participants via grants or allowances and sustainable funding for digital programmes, was highlighted as essential. Only through a holistic and collective approach can digital gender gaps be effectively addressed and the full potential of the digital economy unlocked for the benefit of society as a whole.

To view the full panel discussion click here.

Building a more equal and prosperous African digital future.

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