Four young women journey from rural South Africa to high-level ICT study in Hyderabad, India

30 June 2016 | Mammuso Makhanya | Opinion

A handful of young women and scores of young men could not believe their luck when on Monday the 23 November 2015, they found themselves at the Gordon Institute of Business Studies (GIBS) – one of the country’s premier higher education institutions – anxiously sitting in front of panellists, being grilled about synergies between South Africa and India.
 They were anxious about whether they would be able give their best performances and impress the panellists. If they did then maybe, just maybe, they would make the top 30 chosen to go to study in Hyderabad, India.

Looking at the young people in front of us one my fellow selection panellists muttered that “the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) sector is so masculine”.

This is one of the challenges that this initiative of the FirstRand Foundation (FRF), one of Tshikululu Social Investments’ premier corporate social investment clients is faced with. As panellists we had gathered at GIBS to select top candidates in FRF’s KhulaSangam (KS2) for an ICT internship in Hyderabad in India. This article aims to highlight the journey of the young women in particular, who were mostly from rural areas, with the hope of being selected to travel to Hyderabad in India to obtain an ICT certificate from one of the world’s leading companies.

The aim of the KhulaSangam programme, which is a combination of the Zulu word khula meaning to grow, and the Hindi word sangam meaning together (growing together) is on improving the employability of graduates in order for them to kick-start meaningful careers in the ICT sector. This sector has been identified as a critical and scarce skill for South Africa by both government and the private sector. In this instance young unemployed South African graduates are sent to India for a six-month internship. As stated above, this programme is being implemented in partnership by the FRF, Tech Mahindra, FirstRand Bank (India), Tshikululu Social Investments, GIBS, Enke: Make Your Mark and The Collective Genius for the 2016 cohort.

By participating in the KS2 programme, these the interns benefit in a variety of ways, including:

  • Work experience with leading companies in key sectors;
  • Exposure to international travel and culture in a one of the leading countries in ICT and technology;
  • Exposure to high-impact, youth-led community development projects;
  • Training on professionalism, personal development and leadership; and
  • Increased employability back in South Africa.

A key conversation when discussing ICT is the issue of gender inequality in the industry, which struck me painfully during my involvement as a panellist in the KS2 selection week. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) the UN specialised agency for information and communication technology less than 30% of persons in the ICT sector worldwide are women. Closer to home the The Institute of Information Technology Professionals (IITPSA)1 states that in South Africa – where women comprise 55% of the country’s entire workforce – only 20% of the ICT workforce are women (2014). This is against the backdrop of the South African Human Resource Development Council (HRDC)2 that has listed ICT as a rare and critical skill needed by the economy according to its 2010 – 2030: Human Resource Development Strategy publication.

With these young women in front of me, it occurred to me that there are many hurdles placed in the paths of young South African women, especially those from rural areas. Through this article I hope to highlight some of the barriers to recruiting, retaining and ultimately progressing young women to the pinnacle of the male dominated industry. Although this piece only focuses on my experience with a handful of young women in the KhulaSangam Programme, this picture mirrors that of South Africa and the globe. Women bear the brunt of what is referred to as the digital divide. This term that refers to the gap between those that have access to technology and those that don’t have. This is largely determined by socio-economic status. Out of the 24 interns who were ultimately selected to attend the KhulaSangam ICT internship in Hyderabad, only four are women. This pattern was the same right from the beginning stage of seeking applications.

As the interview process progressed, I could not help but wonder how many rivers these young women had had to cross and how many hurdles they had had to navigate in order to get to ICT institutions and finally to this stage. How many of them had to go to wells to fetch water for their siblings to wash, cook and clean their homesteads before going to these institutions? How many hours had they spent rearing siblings while their male counterparts were largely concerned with school work and other matters?

Despite these challenges the young women had forged ahead to acquire a matric qualification that was believed to be their passport into an ICT college or university. They yearned to study this elusive course they believed, from the little career guidance they received, would open doors to a brighter future. Granted, the lack of sound career guidance is a rarity to most rural learners, not only young women.

My other key call-out from this process was that most of them had never possessed a computer of their own before they entered university. Most middle to upper class South Africans underestimate the impact of lack of access to technological equipment such as computers by learners from under-resourced areas, because such items have become regular household educational items.

The challenges that these young women encounter while growing up intensify when they enter university where they struggle with such basics as food, decent accommodation and ICT equipment to utilise for study revision. With so many hurdles to overcome, these young women cannot believe their good fortune when at the end they graduate. However, this joy is short-lived as many end up staying at home for months or years after graduating where they tend to their home chores, look after siblings and fetch wood from faraway places. As this joblessness continues to take a toll on them, some end up losing hope and wonder what the benefit of studying ICT was and why is it is deemed a rare skill at all.

After the interviews were completed the young women and men would still roast in uncertainty for another two days before the finalists would be announced. Unnerving thoughts kept flooding their minds as they agonised whether they would make it and what would happen if they didn’t. They feared going back to their respective villages and townships without clinching the Hyderabad internship. Whilst we panellists were busy with the scoring and selection process, the candidates were receiving a further two days of career/job preparation training by GIBS. This training was meant to prepare everyone for the internship in India and, ultimately, the world of ICT work.

D-day arrived and the young women had had a restless night as could be expected. To add salt to the wound, the announcement of the top twenty-four who were going to India was going to be made at their graduation ceremony in the evening of the 25 November 2015. The hour of reckoning arrived and the selected interns, including our four young women, were announced in alphabetical order.

Our four young women had been given a life time opportunity to study ICT in India. They made the top twenty-four. They could not believe their achievement. Most of the selected interns including our young women had never been inside a plane before. Now they were headed to Hyderabad, one of the planet’s tech capitals, for high level training and exposure to the world of innovation. Unbelievable!

Time flew so fast, and in January 2016 the young women and their fellow interns were on their way to Hyderabad for the experience of a life time – personal and professional growth beckon.

On 20 January 2016 they began their ICT training in Hyderabad and by the time of writing this piece they had completed four of their six months’ worth of training. The young women had come indeed a long way in the quest to conquer the ICT world.

In order to inspire more girls to pursue ICT as a career, the UN back in 2010 instituted a Girls In ICT Day “celebrating Success, Inspiring Girls”, on the fourth Thursday in April.

Other global initiatives that aim to increase women participation in ICT include “About the Grace Hopper Celebration”3 which is the biggest assembly of global women in ICT; is expecting thousands of women this year in Houston in the US in October 2016.

At the 2015 Women in Science Awards4, the South African Minister of the Department of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor stated that “the SA government had a number of incentives to enable the progression of women and girls in the science, technology and innovation sector, such as the research chair and centres of excellence initiatives, and a number of bursary programmes”.

With such amplifying moments for young women and ICT, let’s hope these efforts will inspire more young women like our four to conquer this world.

1 The Institute of Information Technology Professionals (IITPSA). Available at: www.itnewsafrica.com/2014/04/south-africas-ict-industry-lacking-women-at-the-helm

2 South African Human Resource Development Council (HRDC), 2010 – 2030 Human Resource Development Strategy. Available at: www.hrdcsa.org.za/content/strategy

3 Anita Borg Institute, Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in computing. Available at: http://ghc.anitaborg.org/news/2015-impact-report/

South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) Minister, Naledi Pandor, at the Department’s Women in Science and Technology Awards. Available at: www.unisa.ac.za/news/index.php/2015/08/unisas-prof-lindiwe-zungu-wins-big-at-dst-women-in-science-awards/