Breaking down barriers – how top women in IT succeed

Breaking down barriers – how top women in IT succeed

With still too few women entering the STEM and IT sectors, inspiring women in SA IT give their advice for girls and women on getting ahead in the world of IT

The South African IT sector is still a male dominated arena, but it promises great opportunities for women entering the field.

This is according to panellists on a special Women’s Month webinar hosted by the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) Western Cape Chapter last week.

The panel, comprising four inspiring women in IT and members of the IITPSA’s Women in IT committee, said nothing stood in the way of girls and young women entering the field, and they encouraged women already working in IT to help pave the way for other women to enter the field and succeed in it.

Be authentic

Eleni Kwinana, Executive Head for Vodacom Business in KwaZulu Natal, said the world of IT could be an extremely masculine environment and by no means kind to women. “I often find myself the odd one out, as the youngest and a female.” Her approach was to remain unapologetically authentic, she said. “I just be myself – I remain appropriate, but I don’t dilute myself. In whatever you do, bring enough of yourself to it, so that way you can authentically be a great contributor.”

Get rid of the box

Kwinana noted that each person is in their own race, and did not need to focus on competing with others, but rather on improving themselves. But she advised women to challenge old norms and stereotypes: “Don’t think out of the box – get rid of the box. Let your light shine,” she said.

Because women also often found themselves playing multiple roles at work and home, she said: “Sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day. Prioritise, and be present in what you are doing. You must also take care of yourself.”

Get girls connected

Baratang Miya, founder and CEO of Girlhype coding academy, said men may have been born empowered by the patriarchy, but girls and women could be empowered by technology and networks. “If girls don’t have access to the internet in this day and age, they can’t be empowered. They need internet access and computers,” she said, and appealed for support in expanding the reach of Girlhype’s work.

Overcome fear of failure

On the question of fear of failure, Miya said: It has been my fear that if I fail, I fail all the women behind me. But it’s something we need to start dealing with.  You need to know your own worth, and that quitting is not always the same as failure. I am not a tree – I can move. There are opportunities.”

Senele Goba, Director of 4IR Innovations and founder of Ososayensi Education, who holds a BSc in Computer Science and an Honours degree in Computer Science from UCT, recounted that she failed her first test in university. With perseverance, and encouragement from her lecturer and friends, she reached the same level as her classmates and got into class merit list.

Accept the challenge

Goba says: “When I got to work, I was again the rose among the thorns. As a minority I felt it was a challenge I had to go through. I started with a negative trust balance – feeling I was there as a statistic, rather than on merit.” She completed her training successfully and grew through the company, becoming a manager with the authority to recruit. “This was where the real challenge came – I wasn’t able to find women in the automation field, and I realised we didn’t have the pipeline to bring women into the field.  I decided to start my own company to fulfil this need. IT may be challenging but it’s not unsuitable for women – they flourish in this field,” she said.  “At Ososayensi Education, we expose young learners to the basics of computer science and coding, and the results we see are super exciting because parents often tell us their children have also improved in maths and discipline as a result.”

Goba said she was encouraged to see many other organisations also promoting the empowerment of girls in STEM and ICT fields. “It’s exciting and I hope that collaboration will create mass action that results in huge impact and reach at a faster pace,” she said.

Goba noted: “We tend to think women’s empowerment takes away power from men – it doesn’t. As a woman, if you know your value – it’s absolute. We’re not in competition with men, we should be on this journey together, so collaboration is important.”

Know your worth

On the question of women in IT earning less than their male peers, Moira de Roche, Past President and Non-Executive Director of IITPSA, recounted advice she was given in her first job: “Don’t worry about what others earn, worry about what you earn and make sure you get paid what you’re worth.”

Empowerment of women in IT is one of IITPSA’s focus areas, de Roche noted. The IITPSA supports girls and young women studying IT and aims to foster professional leadership, education and mentoring for women IT professionals. Membership to the IITPSA will also help professional women develop a network of people, which supports future career development.

The IITPSA announced the winners of the Computer Applications Olympiad in August this year. The annual Applications Olympiad is a challenge for learners who take CAT or the ICDL or are otherwise computer literate. “I was delighted that so many of the finalists – more than half of them, and the winner, are young women,” noted de Roche.

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