By Jessie Taylor
In South Africa, women currently account for only 23% of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professionals working in South Africa. And only 17% of those fill leadership positions.
Changing this will not only result in far-reaching social benefits; it will also see companies making more profit and unlocking new markets.
There remains an income gap between men and women. In South Africa, only eight women are employed or actively looking for work for every ten men. This is despite women making up more than half of the working-age population. Of those women who are working, they earn 60 cents for each rand earned by men – which, alarmingly, is higher than the global average.
South African women in the STEM workforce earn around 28% less than their male colleagues. This requires them to work two and a half more hours a day to earn the same monthly salary.
But reducing gender inequality can have big payoffs for companies. Closing the pay gap in developing countries could increase women’s earnings by more than 23%, or $2-trillion.
In South Africa, if the gender gap closed by just 10%, there could be economic growth of around 3.2% in GDP, according to estimates by PricewaterhouseCoopers. If women’s employment increased by 10%, the unemployment rate could decrease by as much as 6.5%.
In addition, male-dominated workplaces mean that men are developing products and services for men and that women’s perspectives are regularly overlooked. “Involving women in decision-making, design, and innovation will not only create more equality in society as a whole, but it will also lead to a whole new wave of product development that companies could benefit from.
In addition, scarcity of skills poses a real danger to companies. In a 2018 survey, 38% out of a selection of CEOs said the availability of specific vital skills posed a threat to business growth. This will become even more of a challenge as technology evolves. In Africa, 63% of CEOs said they struggled to attract digital talent.
Building a woman-centred workplace
Increasing female employment in the tech industry requires a holistic approach that makes science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields accessible to women. South Africa has significantly fewer women graduating from STEM degrees, with women holding only around half the degrees of their male counterparts.
This is why graduate programmes are essential – they encourage women to re-enter STEM fields and provide them with opportunities for further education in the field.
One way to ensure women remain in the workforce, and in STEM fields in particular, is through reskilling programmes. Reskilling can help women move into higher-paying jobs and will allow them to keep their careers on track after starting a family. It will also ensure skills gaps are closed, but increasing the skills pool within a company.
A holistic approach
But graduate programmes are not the only way to encourage women to take up roles in the tech industry. The World Economic Forum suggests cultivating an interest in STEM fields as early as possible. This will require work at the classroom level to remove gender bias, rethink the way children are taught and ensure girls are exposed to tech and related fields.
Creating an enabling environment at schools is essential – girls are likely to drop out of STEM fields between the ages of 12 and 14. There is potential for companies to partner with schools to give girls access to job information, mentors and role models.
Female underrepresentation does not only result from a lack of education. Women slowly exit their careers over time, often when they become mothers. Many women find themselves sacrificing promotion and career advancement to their desire to have a family – almost half of new mothers feel overlooked for advancement once they return to work.
Creating an equal workplace will require addressing the reasons that cause women to leave their careers. This can include flexible work policies, parental leave policies and removing parental bias from advancement programmes.
The participation of women in the workforce is essential for business growth. Mixed-gender teams produce more creative solutions and perform better – something every business needs to harness during these uncertain economic times
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