With so many initiatives aiming to bridge the gender gap within the technology sector, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the fact that it all feels familiar: coding workshops and weekend bootcamps repetitively encouraging girls to pick STEM subjects and empathy-driven corporate social responsibility projects. While every initiative has taken a stab at improving diversity issues from the ground up, the fact remains that women are still underrepresented in tech globally.
The African divide is even bigger. In 2012, a study funded by Intel found that women in developing countries are nearly 25% less likely to be online than men. The gap in some areas of the world was even higher – Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, stopped at 43%.
“We keep talking about the need for equity and the need for driving social change on the continent,” says Videsha Proothveerajh, the country manager of Intel South Africa. “It’s a given that we have to fix this. But for me, it’s not just about the social need – women taking their place in society, having equal right. It’s about the economic principle behind it as well. Research has shown that if you empower women, they will pay it forward. They will plough that knowledge, that economic benefit, back into their communities. There’s a horrible cycle of poverty that exists within Africa, and we need to break that cycle.”
Enter She Will Connect, Intel’s first step to enable and empower women with technology. She Will Connect is also the spiritual successor to Girl Rising, the global campaign for girls’ education where Intel was a strategic partner. At a basic level, She Will Connect is about reducing the gender gap for African women by expanding digital literacy and leveraging the internet and technology to help women pursue their business goals. Not only does the programme aim to introduce women in disadvantaged areas to the internet, it exposes them to government, health and educational data and resources that will help solve the socio-economic challenges they face within their communities.
“It’s not a social movement,” adds Proothveerajh. “To create a smart and connected world, everyone has to take part. If you think about what we really need in Africa from an entrepreneurial perspective, we are never going to have enough jobs so that every woman and child in Africa leaving university is going to be able to step into a corporate job. Entrepreneurship is important. Going forward, it’s also about digital – you have to be able to use the tools to get a competitive advantage. To leapfrog any socio-economic challenge, technology becomes really important.”
Intel developed She Will Connect with partners such as World Pulse, Vodacom, Siyafunda, Usasa, UN Women, and Unesco. The goal of the programme is to reach five million young women in Africa by the end of this year, empowering them to get online and help others. “For me, technology is an enabler. It’s not what it’s about, it’s what it makes possible. How do you create the future? Not everyone has to have the same vision. I look at the girls in our computer clubhouses in Soweto and Etwatwa, for example, and wonder if there is someone there with the cure for something we don’t even know is a problem yet…but we’re not enabling them. It’s irresponsible. And it’s not a corporate affair. It’s about economics, at the end of the day,” says Proothveerajh.
Puleng Moyaha is a master trainer at Siyafunda Community Technology Centre (CTA) in Tembisa. At Siyafunda CTC, anyone can easily access computers, the internet, and other digital technologies that enable them to gather information, create, learn, and communicate with others while they develop essential digital skills.
“I started as a volunteer, but She Will Connect got me excited to be working with women,” Moyaha says. “After finishing the programme, I started my own training business in Thokoza. I now train about 60 women per day, from 8am until 8pm. And from that training, many women have become very successful and started their own businesses. One lady began a baking business, and is even advertising on Facebook.
Women come back to us all the time with business plans, funding plans, even some with their own companies.” Emily Mahlaba’s story is not dissimilar to Moyaha’s. She matriculated, but couldn’t afford to attend university. She landed up at Siyafunda as a volunteer because she felt skill-less, and did not want to stay at home, doing nothing.
“I loved learning Excel. As women, we naturally know how to spend money…but once we have a spreadsheet, we have the total before month-end,” Mahlaba laughs.
After the programme, Mahlaba opened a day care centre in Heidelberg with her mother, which now looks after 17 kids. She hopes to expand next year. Mahlaba currently owns four computers, is training her sister to do the admin for the centre, and is distilling the She Will Connect programme down to a child-friendly level to try to encourage digital awareness and safety from a young age.
“We’re living in the era of technology,” Mahlaba says. “I want to help women, especially the younger generation, become aware of the dangers around them. As a woman, you’re taught from a young age to behave in a particular manner. We grow up with these ideas, but now we also need the skills. We need to be familiar with what is happening in the world.” Fumisane Mawelela and Dikeledi Mokoele are both environmental eco-guides from Ivory Park in Midrand, who completed She Will Connect’s My Digital Journey.
“I loved being taught how to use a computer for things I need on a daily basis, to find things I need on the internet,” says Mawelela. “Research, knowing how to design…” Mokoele, like Mahlaba, was sitting at home without the funds to study. She found out about She Will Connect and now uses the basic digital literacy skills picked up from the programme to help her with her current job educating primary school learners (and the Ivory Park community) about the environment that surrounds them. Clementine Radebe began her She Will Connect journey as a volunteer and is now a senior trainer with Siyafunda. “The thing that motivates me is the stories that I hear after women complete the programme,” she says.
“There’s a group of women that recently opened a multidiscipline organisation that helps disadvantaged and disabled people with clothes and food. They only started this year, but are already feeding over 40 children. They designed their own logo, they can type their own documents… I get motivated daily by all the women who are impacted by this programme.”
It’s not just about being taught to use a computer, elaborates Radebe; it’s about being taught to use a computer in a way that will help women start their own businesses.
Radebe has trained over 200 women and has a waiting list of another 200 wanting to join the programme. The success stories are endless. When women become digitally connected, they can change their lives through the economic and educational opportunities afforded by that connection.
“If we want to move forward as a country, we have to get everybody to the point where they can consume technology. In order to get to that point, you have to build a bridge from now to there and create a vision that asks: how do we get society to where we want it to be?” says Proothveerajh.
My digital journey
My Digital Journey is a main part of She Will Connect. It’s a web-based application for women in South Africa (as well as Kenya and Nigeria) that uses gaming mechanics (also called ‘gamification’) to empower women to go online, interact and learn about a variety of topics from online security and safety, to brand and image. They can learn individually or in a facilitated environment, and with the support of a peer network. What’s interesting is that it uses case scenarios relevant to women in the form of challenges, which gives them the opportunity to practise solutions before moving on to the next level.