The business world must become more welcoming and safer for women, so they can go all the way from the classroom to the boardroom, in all sectors, including technology.

Technology is the fastest-growing, most lucrative industry in history – increasingly, it is becoming the force behind every single other industry. Fields such as coding, UX design and analytics drive innovation, opportunity and growth in all spaces, including manufacturing, farming and finance.

Without a doubt, tech is the future of work. But women are underrepresented in technology and they risk being left behind. We must add more women to the tech sector if we want them to strengthen the industry and the economy.

Technology is part of every single aspect of our lives. Not only does tech drive our economy, it also invents our future. Products and services are being developed based on the perspective of only one half of the population – men.

A good example is the fact that we have about 230 million pregnancies in the world every year, but there are no car seatbelts designed for pregnant women. The single largest cause of maternal death is car accidents. Even women who are not pregnant have a 70% higher chance of being injured in a crash than a man because engineers have designed seatbelts as if women are small men.

This is why women need to be involved in decision-making and innovation processes. Diversity and inclusiveness are essential in every single industry.

The gender gap in technology is preventing women from playing a full role in shaping the future of society. Helping women and girls to advance is not only good for society, and ethical, but smart and good for the economy. When you empower women, you empower whole communities and nations.

Women’s involvement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in South Africa and other African countries does not translate into strong participation of women in the tech sector. Women currently account for only 23% of the STEM professionals working in South Africa, and only 17% of STEM leadership positions – and these percentages are lower for women of colour.

There are so many reasons for this, ranging from cultural norms, unconscious biases, online or offline harassment and a lack of self-confidence, which hinder girls’ and women’s full participation.

Fixing the ‘leaky pipeline’

The digital acceleration fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic represents a historic opportunity to get more women involved in tech. Educating, empowering, upskilling and reskilling women will help them to get ready for the future of work and will allow them to work remotely, be financially independent, drive their own businesses, make their own choices, and be part of the ever-growing technology economy.

If we want to investigate and fix the “leaky pipeline”, we have to fund programmes that will cover all aspects of this leaky pipeline.

Education is key, and the crucial stage is early adolescence – between 12 and 14 – because studies have shown this is when almost half of young women are inclined to lose interest in STEM-related subjects.

Companies should focus on providing them with information about possible jobs, as well as giving them access to mentorship and role models. Women who are mentored feel more supported and have the personal confidence to achieve their dreams. Businesses should also reskill women already in the workplace and give them opportunities to climb the career ladder.

When women do go into tech, many drop out. We need to make the environment more welcoming and safer for women, and we need to encourage them and mentor them because we want women going all the way from the classroom to the boardroom, in all sectors, including technology.

We also need to address salary disparity and discrimination in the workplace. Once women are in the STEM workforce in South Africa, they earn 28% less than their male colleagues, which means they have to work for two-and-a-half more hours a day to earn the same salary at the end of the month, which is absurd.

Three years ago, I created Women in Tech, a global movement and call to action, because I realised the gender gap in technology was getting wider – there were proportionally more women in tech five decades ago than there are today.

We design and implement programmes to accelerate the empowerment of girls and women in STEM. We focus on education, entrepreneurship, innovation and social inclusion, and have 60 000 members across the world. We have 22 official chapters, and we are opening four more, with plans to open another in Africa (we already have chapters in South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia, Angola and Mauritius).

Women do not just want to be part of this revolution – we want to be in decision-making roles. Business leaders have to show the way because, when women rise, we all rise.

* This is an abridged speech delivered by Ayumi Moore Aoki at the Trialogue Business in Society Conference 2021, which was presented in partnership with Absa, Momentum Metropolitan Foundation, MTN SA Foundation, Rand Water Foundation, Vodacom, Capitec Foundation, Sibanye-Stillwater and Volkswagen South Africa. 

This article was first published on IT Web