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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Women In STEM Fields: Bridging the Gender Digital Divide in South Africa


With the increased dependence on accurate information and user friendly technology during the COVID-19 pandemic, the world saw the exacerbation of the digital divide in most developing countries. The digital divide, in simple terms, highlights the inequality in access to technology and data, across different groups of people.

One group that was particularly marginalised in developing countries, during this period, was women. While we have come to realise that during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, connectivity is the key, it is crucial to ensure that all women have digital access to enhance the sustainability of their livelihood.

Females often have less access to technology, and in particular, the internet for a number of reasons. Cost is usually the primary barrier. Many females struggle to afford technological devices and data access for utilizing the internet. Cultural differences sometimes allure to developing stereotypes that ‘technology is only for males’.

This cultivates a sense of fear among females, as they do not want to be discriminated against. The Gender Digital Divide (GDD) in terms of access to the internet is largest in the world’s least developed countries at 32.9%.

The internet GDD is the largest in Africa.

According to the 2019 UNESCO report titled “Cracking the code: Girls’ and women’s education in STEM”, only 35% of STEM students in higher education globally, are women. To understand the South African scenario some stats include – only 3% of female students in higher education choose technology related studies; women make up 5% of CEOs in technology related companies; in 2018, the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) estimated the total number of women engineers registered with them to be just 11%.

While equality transformation in the IT and other technology-related industries has commenced, women are still largely underrepresented. Without equal access to technology and connectivity women cannot participate equally in digital societies; speak out and campaign on issues that affect them; and are less involved in creating digital artefacts and content.

This also negatively impacts developing countries’ potential for economic growth and development. To bridge this GDD females must have a right to be safe while they are online. They should feel free to speak up without the fear of harassment. Since lockdown commenced on the 17th of March 2020 in South Africa, through supporting many female academics from different race, age, economic and cultural groups, in the move to online digital teaching and assessment practices, through a series of academic empowerment workshops at multiple Higher Education Institutions in South Africa and Africa at large, the GDD became more evident to the author.

digiFEM© : Bridging the Gender Digital Divide in South Africa.

While the attendees were not solely made up of females, the ‘voice’ most predominant during the webinar sessions were those of the female participants. The most prominent barrier that emerged among these female academics was that of ‘digital literacy’. Basic digital skills were clearly lacking among many female participants, and they attributed this to unequal access to learning relevant technical skills, and a lack of encouragement to pursue digital literacy and technology related courses in school.

We all know that education is the key to success in life, and likewise, it is also essential to closing the GDD. Thus, more females should be allowed/encouraged to attend school and further encouragement should be given to them to pursue careers in the field of technology. Access was the second key factor prohibiting the female academics fully embracing digital teaching and assessment.

Many struggled to connect to online training sessions, while others who did connect, had limited data so they had to resort to listening to the audio only, and switching their videos off.

Thus, through these interactions the author developed the digiFEM© framework, to assist academic institutions, corporate and government departments in addressing the fundamental foundations required to bridge the GDD in South Africa. While the framework is still being tested, it hopes to serve as an enabler to reduce the GDD among women in South Africa.

As outlined in the digiFEM© framework above, the starting point is to provide the infrastructure to support digital technologies. Issues such as electricity shortages need to be addressed, e.g. the creation of digital hotspots could facilitate access even in rural areas.

The actual devices are often not available for females, so the technology must also be provided, e.g. partnering with corporates to provide internet enabled devices would empower women with the technology.

Once the foundations of infrastructure and technology have been developed, it is hoped that essential economic and social issues related to access and devices, which is prevalent in developing countries, would have been reduced/resolved. Next, training in digital literacy is essential.

This often means providing training from the basic essentials to advanced skills on how to use the device, as well as how to use the Internet. Following from digital literacy, is creating  awareness of the power of digitisation.

Educating these digitally empowered females with the potential of digital technologies to support their livelihoods through exposure to electronic commerce for launching or increasing the reach of their own small businesses, is one example. Finally, creating opportunities for these females to build communities of practice will provide a platform for sharing the innovative ways in which they have harnessed and adopted technology, and thus reduced the GDD. These communities of practice would also help to address the cultural and social issues that are present in many of the rural African communities.

Thus, if we want to successfully implement strategies to reduce the GDD in South Africa, a holistic approach is required. All stakeholders need to take a more active role. Governments need to invest in more digital skills training programmes targeted specifically at women. Furthermore, corporates must develop women in the IT workforce, by promoting talented individuals to leadership positions.

Let us embrace the spirit of Letsema – a Sotho word, which means “people coming together to work for a common purpose” – to collectively work together to educate, share and empower other females and reduce the GDD.


Dr Upasana Singh is a senior lecturer in the Discipline of Information Systems and Technology at the University of KwaZulu Natal, Westville Campus, in Durban South Africa. She lectures on a wide-range of IT-related subjects and she has a keen interest in Educational Technologies.

School of Management, IT and Governance: University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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