Women in STEM: Creating the next digital revolution contributors in Women’s Month
At the dawn of the 4th Industrial Revolution, technology is changing the way we live and South Africa has the opportunity to grow the next generation of technology developers to ensure a diversity of viewpoints and solutions which represent the real needs of the continent.
Talent is however not only confined to any particular group of the population and to solve the many tough challenges facing us in the twenty-first century, we need to ensure that more women are empowered and active in science, technology, education and mathematics (STEM) careers.
While women in STEM fields are not a homogeneous group, the thread of challenges they face often provides a consistent theme which requires a range of responses. The South African government has made many strides through legislation and related interventions in STEM.
These challenges also require interventions at a grassroot level. But many of the challenges faced are often not unique to South Africa and hinder the grassroots development of the technology pipeline of diverse human resources.
These issues include the lack of role models to which children can ‘model up’ in the field; limited access to information for children in rural and disadvantaged communities of career path choices in fields such as technology; and the inability of young children to pursue or succeed in mathematics and related subjects thus hindering access to higher education in these subjects.
Academic institutions have an opportunity to provide enabling and empowering environments for communities, that will allow young men and women to be involved as contributors to building the next pipeline of diverse technology experts.
Each year at the Department of Information Systems under the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), we embrace Women’s Month throughout the month of August.
Thus, 100 girls studying in grade 9 from ten schools across different townships in Cape Town are invited to a programme tailored to immerse them in the lives of women who work in the tech industry.
Through this initiative, girls are given the opportunity to engage with a diverse range of successful women already working in their field, engaging them on their life journeys into technology as well as their daily role requirements. The girls are further offered an opportunity to learn the basic principles of programming, and have the opportunity to see their programming projects come to life. In addition, they present blog posts and develop finch robot programs using basic Scratch language.
These learners then have a responsibility to give feedback on what they have learned from the programme, also describing how they intend to go back to their community and school to influence other girls and boys to consider careers in the field of information and communications technology (ICT).
This programme is followed by a yearly hackathon where young male and female students engage with local social challenges which affect women in surrounding local communities and come up with technological solutions to address them.
Through such initiatives, UWC aims to create an awareness amongst students of the need to develop technology solutions which address local and social challenges. Moreover, it also intends to motivate the diverse range of young girls to proceed down career paths in the domain of technology and hopefully gain a key interest in becoming active participants who will shape the new revolution.
Children require enabled environments to allow them to make informed social and academic choices. In South Africa, many children still grow up without reliable access to digital and educational resources in rural area and townships.
Academic institutions have an opportunity to fill this void - and produce digital citizens who can go on to make their mark in the world.
This article previously appeared as an op-ed in the Cape Argus.
Dr Mmaki Jantjies is Head of Information Systems at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), where she performs and coordinates research on how educational technology can be developed and used to enhance learning in developing countries. Dr Jantjies serves as coordinator of the Mozilla and UN Women technology clubs for young girls – creating safe spaces for young women and men from Cape Town township high schools to learn information and communication technology and leadership skills, imparting leadership skills, and enabling them to make use of the web for their own betterment, and that of others. Dr Jantjies is holder of a Google grant to develop curricula and teach teachers how to use technology to support computer science learning in schools, finalist in the 2016 MTN/Kagiso Media Women in ICT Partnership For Change Awards, panellist at the 2017 G20 Women 20 Dialogue in Germany, one of the Mail & Guardian Young 200 Top Top Achievers Under 35 for 2017.