Silicon Cape’s Women in Technology Unconference aimed to bring together diverse groups of women in the ICT sector to share common challenges and take combined action to address them. Bettina Moss reports.
The ‘unconference’, held in partnership with the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (EDP), was facilitated by Cara Turner, COO and agile coach at Project codeX. It made use of OpenSpace technology, which ensures inclusive participation of all delegates who create the agenda around their concerns and passions.
“By working together closely, we can focus our energy toward impactful action,” said Maritza van den Heuvel, conference organiser and Silicon Cape women’s portfolio subcommittee member.
Attending the conference were entrepreneurs and founders, representatives from global tech leaders such as Amazon and Microsoft, women employed in the IT space, university students and representatives from local and national government.
EDP programme facilitator Jodi Allemeier
Although aimed at women, several male delegates attended to learn more about creating supportive environments for women in technology.
Sean Clancy SalesRockIT
A panel discussion was held around the challenges faced by women in technology and explored opportunities to provide solutions. Moderated by van den Heuvel, the panellists included Emily Reid, curriculum director at Girls Who Code (via video call from New York); Emma Dicks, founder Code 4 CT; Philipine Francke, CEO HashTopic and Lynette Hundermark, co-founder and CEO Useful and Beautiful.
Lynette Hundermark, CEO Useful and Beautiful
Largely a male-dominated field, the tech industry is facing a worldwide challenge to attract and retain women. “We want girls to enter the technology industry, but it’s also important to get them to stay. So we need to create an environment that is comfortable for women,” said Reid.
“Women need more encouragement to embrace technology and not to be afraid of it,” said Francke, adding that building confidence, risk taking and overcoming fear of failure are all issues that need to be addressed.
“We need to change the narrative to appeal to young girls,” said Dicks. “The way we do this at Code 4 CT is to get them excited about solving problems.”
Code 4 CT teaches girls to code in a fun learning environment. Their goal is to equip young women entering the labour force with tech and problem solving skills as well as soft skills, enabling them to define solutions to local challenges. Dicks received one of the first Queen’s Young Leaders Awards from Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace in June. The award was to recognise the work of Code4CT in addressing social justice in the Commonwealth.
“We need to create awareness around technology that doesn’t only mean going into a career in computer science, but can also mean interdisciplinary areas around computer science. Journalism using data science is an example of this,” said Reid.
Hundermark agreed that working in the technology field doesn’t have to mean being a programmer. “It’s not always about an interest in hardcore technology,” she said. “It’s about collaborating to create solutions.”
The panellists agreed that it’s important to break down stereotypes at school level to begin closing the gender gap.
Hundermark, who has developed some of South Africa’s most popular apps including those for Ster-Kinekor and Bidorbuy, credits one of her school teachers for encouraging her to pursue her career in technology.
“Fortunately the school I attended had a really good computer science lab and a computer science teacher. I had a natural love of maths and my maths teacher, who was also my computer science teacher encouraged me. I didn’t even know computer science could be a career. Being an Indian female, the careers that were traditionally expected were being a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant. I was planning to go into medicine, but because I found computer science very easy, I thought why not continue with it and it ended up becoming my profession,” said Hundermark.
Hundermark is one of South Africa’s most prolific women in technology. A sought after speaker, she speaks regularly at a tech and mobile conferences locally and internationally. She served on the judging panel for the EduTech Africa, AfricaCom and World Retail awards for the last two years and she recently returned from Rome where she sat on the advisory board for the World Retail Congress in Africa 2015. Without the initial encouragement from her teacher, she feels this would not have been the case.
The panellists agreed that mentorship and particularly peer mentorship is crucial to support women in the industry. “We need to collaborate and share our knowledge to mentor and encourage other women,” said van den Huevel.
All the panellists believed that had it not been for the mentorship they received, they have chosen different careers and would not have had the confidence to achieve what they have done.
“It’s important to reach out to role models. Everyone is pressed for time, but it doesn’t have to be a face to face meeting. You can stay in touch on WhatsApp, Skype or SMS”, said Hundermark.
Thuli Sibeko, Girls Invent Tomorrow
Van den Heuvel believes women must speak up about the personal and work challenges they are facing in the tech industry. “Sharing our stories and concerns encourages other women and creates an environment of support. Speaking up, asking the hard questions and having the conversations will help us understand what we need to do to transform this industry,” she said.
Zimkhita Buwa, Silicon Cape Women portfolio head, said the conference was important for Silicon Cape to identify solutions and initiatives. “It’s up to each of us as individuals to decide, once we leave the conference, how we can take ownership of creating the impact we’re looking for,” she said.
IMAGE: Women attending the Women in Tech Unconferece / Elizabeth Gould
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