Is Africa’s tech industry missing out on top female talent?
By Tiana Cline
While African women continue to defy the odds as they assume various political leadership roles, the continent’s tech industry faces a serious gender issue. Despite endless global conversations around diversity within the tech sector, women still face significant barriers and are noticeably underrepresented in many roles, making it difficult for them to enter – and eventually lead – the industry.
According to a global women in leadership study conducted by IBM, gender equity is not a women’s issue, it’s an organizational one. “Women are significantly underrepresented at nearly every level of the workforce,” says Lindsay Kaplan, co-founder and Chief Brand Officer of Chief, a private network of executive women on a mission to change the face of leadership. “If companies prioritize gender diversity across their entire organizations through policies, investments, and a culture that meaningfully supports women, we’ll see a transformative impact — equity for everyone in the workplace and stronger, more resilient businesses.”
The study found that in Kenya, for example, there is even more stagnation in senior professional and non-executive managerial positions. Even though there are some incredible African women in IT like Catherine Muraga, the Managing Director at the Microsoft Africa Development Centre in Nairobi and Kendi Ntwiga, who heads up misrepresentation at Meta, the percentage of women hasn’t budged since the 2019 drop — and at a senior manager, it has even declined somewhat. And while the pandemic continues to have a disproportionate impact on women at work, in Kenya, geopolitical unrest was ranked the number one
disruption facing women.
While Kaplan is happy to see slight progress in the representation of women at the C-suite and board level, she maintains that it is imperative that companies do more to fill the pipeline that leads to powerful positions.
One global technology company that is making massive strides in creating a place for women in technology is Cisco and more so, their Vice President for Middle East and Africa, Reem Asaad. Born in Egypt, Asaad moved to the United States at the age of 16 to study computer science.
“I had to leave because there weren’t a lot of accessible universities at the time and I wanted to study computer science. I went to the University of Houston in Texas and that was the beginning,” she says. Now based in Dubai, Asaad’s focus is collaborating with government, customers and partners but creating and developing female leadership is her passion. “Cisco should mimic the communities that
it serves. That’s already inclusive and a starting point. We have amazing resources in Africa and we need to invest in female talent,” says Asaad. “Africa is fascinating because we talk about diversity in the region as if it’s something you have to do but our region is diverse by nature.”
Within her role, Asaad is working hard to change the diversity ratio in the Middle East and Africa. She is
responsible for 77 countries – some advanced, others emerging – and within those countries, there are over 2,000 languages and six time zones to take into account.
“Cisco operates in 95 countries and 52 of those are in the mid-East and Africa. It’s diversity whether you like it or not, from age groups to colour to ethnic backgrounds. What you learn when you work in this region is how to understand the difference between equity and equality,” she says.
EQUALITY OR EQUITY?
One McKinsey study on women in the workplace found that gender disparity can emerge as early as the first promotion opportunity – women account for 48% of entry-level hires but only 38% of first-level managers.
This ties in Asaad’s view that even though mentoring and coaching can help grow women into leadership positions, being on the ground is what gives her true visibility. “It’s important because if you don’t know the women around you, those women who could be the next leaders, you will miss them,” she says. “With men, you tend to hire someone because they have ‘potential’. With women, historically, it’s different. You always have to prove yourself in that position. This is a narrative we have to change. We need to hire female leaders because you see the potential.”
For Asaad, this is the difference between equity and equality: equality means giving everybody the same opportunity and the same tools and assuming that you will get similar outputs. Equity is the exact opposite. “Equity is giving everybody what they need. It’s about understanding that people have different strengths and weaknesses. For women, there are certain barriers, certain challenges… what if you could help them to bypass these things?” she asks. “Then women in positions of power can be treated on an equal footing to their male counterparts—judged for their actions and output alone.
Post-pandemic, the hybrid world of work has helped to level the playing field for women to take on leadership roles. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the rate of women participating in the IT sector is now higher than Silicon Valley. “You will be amazed at the number of female engineers, the quality, dedication, commitment and retention that you get,” adds Asaad. “One of our first engineers that got CCIE certified is a female leader in Saudi. We have the talent, but we need somebody to recognize that these women are out there and give them the opportunity.”
Digital transformation is a big part of job creation. Despite geopolitical challenges, governments with an appetite for innovation breed talent and new roles like the chief sustainability officer, renewable energy analyst or green engineer require future-forward skills. “In Africa, we have the skillsets. We have the workforce. We have Cisco Networking Academies that can step in where needed and females have
a very big part in this transformation,” she says. “My role is to solve for three things: getting women in the door by managing unconscious bias to open access. Once women are in, how can you involve and retain them? And once they have been there, how can we progress them to goals.