Women’s Day, celebrated on 9 August, marks the day that over 20,000 women marched to the Union Buildings in 1956, to protest the “Pass Law” that inhibited the freedom of movement of South African citizens who were defined as “black’’, writes Monique Watson, Dell Financial Services.

The march showed the immense impact collective action of women can have and also aligns to the ideals of International Women’s Day promoting equal rights for women and also celebrating the achievements of women in all spheres of life.

As we celebrate Women’s Month through August,  how do women’s rights stack up in the workplace? According to a report produced by The World Bank titled ‘’Women Business and the Law 2021”, South Africa scores 88.1 out of 100, the second highest in the region. This score is also above the average of Sub-Saharan Africa region of 71. Overall this is positive, however areas of improvement include the workplace and the affect that having children has on women’s work as well as laws affecting a woman’s pension.

From a corporate perspective, employers must fully realise the role and influence they hold over the entire hiring and career progression process. Organisations must lead by example in moulding company culture and policy, rather than wait for employee, education or policy to change.

Gender should not matter

The conversation about gender equality has been pushed to the forefront in recent years, sparking positive changes across multiple industries, and igniting greater awareness about gender bias. But despite these improvements, huge gaps remain. A McKinsey study titled “Covid19 and gender equality” showed that women were more vulnerable to Covid-19 economic effects, with female job loss rates about 1.8 times higher than male job rates globally. Additionally, female jobs were more at risk than male ones due to disproportionate representation of women in sectors negatively affected by the Covid-19 crisis.

However, we know that better gender balance in organisations makes good business sense. Organisations that have gender diversity are 21 percent more likely to have above-average financial returns, according to market research company Forrester. Keeping in mind the known economic benefits and the potential to drive innovative growth opportunities from both a social and economic standpoint, striving for gender balance is a clear necessity.

Is it the talent pool?

If we look at the technology industry I work within, a widely cited reason for this disparity is the pipeline problem – suggesting that the pool of female talent with STEM education is limited. There is some truth to this – a PwC study found that women represent only 32 percent STEM graduates worldwide. But the reality is educational qualification in technology isn’t always a prerequisite to join a technology company. Almost six in 10 women in technology did not study computing in university, according to Accenture and Girls Who Code research.

In fact, the problem starts earlier on; a major cause being the stereotypes influencing the career choices and of women. Research from UNESCO shows that starting in their early teens, the performance of boys and girls in STEM related subjects begins to shift. Social bias, classroom dynamics, educational material, policies and economic opportunities are some factors driving this behaviour. Overtime, this compounds to produce a performance gap as well as a representation gap when it comes to boys and girls choosing to pursue STEM related subjects.

Companies can positively impact to this at an early stage by getting involved in programmes that focus on engaging youths and building interest in STEM among girls at a young age. A good example of this is the Khulisa Academy, a High-Performance Computing (HPC) training academy launched by Dell Technologies’ Dell Development Fund, that is designed to enable previously disadvantaged students to further enhance their IT capabilities. Khulisa Academy takes an innovative approach to HPC and empowers students by taking them through an intense two-year training program designed to challenge and stretch their capabilities.

The Khulisa Academy develops scarce skills and nurtures South Africa’s youth by giving them a chance to enter the job market with a skill that is sought after particularly given the significant digital divide and skills gap in the technology sector. Each year our students are head hunted for employment. The top 10% who have an entrepreneurial spirit, are assisted with the start-up of their own business.

Is it the challenge of returning to work

The gender problem persists the higher we go up the seniority funnel, where women returning to work after taking leave for childcare tend to drop out of the workforce and too often, do not return. Gaps in their CV from anywhere between three to 10 years makes rehiring after a work hiatus a significant challenge, especially in the technology sector which is often disrupted by huge advances.

Corporations are often too risk-averse to hire someone without specific experience, no matter their background. But leaders and employees can change this pattern. Companies can also partner with organisations and social enterprises that offer training programmes and support women in getting back into the workforce. Apart from improving the male-to-female ratio, these partnerships expand companies’ access to a huge and valuable talent pool, especially for industries that so often face talent shortage.

The Dell Career ReStart Programme assists women to re-enter the workforce and has a comprehensive re-entry programme to make the transition back to work smooth.

Could it be subtle gender bias?

Some industries are admittedly more male-dominated and have to be aware that subtle gender bias can come through in the hiring process and the way roles are communicated. Research from the University of Waterloo published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has shown that some language in job descriptions can be perceived as more male-oriented which deters many women from applying, as it was less appealing and had a lower sense of job fit.

Additionally, with advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), companies have enormous amounts of data at their fingertips. This should be leveraged to help make more informed decisions that allow companies to mitigate bias through the hiring process. We are already seeing this play out, with some companies incorporating AI features to help recruiters hire more diverse candidates and intelligent chatbots that interview and evaluate job candidates, avoiding any unconscious bias.

A corporate responsibility

The reality is that female representation gets lost at every stage of the talent pipeline, from early education and school, to higher education and entry-level positions, to management and leadership. Women and girls are leaving the talent pipeline, often before they have the chance to excel. And if organisations are going to keep them in the tech ecosystem, they need to embrace diversity and inclusion. This does not just mean welcoming a wider variety of individuals into the workforce – it means changing the workplace culture from the ground up so that these individuals know they’re seen, heard and valued.

Taking steps to mitigate gender bias, together with retraining programmes for returners and youth STEM education, can begin to correct the imbalances with far reaching effects. Gender parity is not a zero-sum game, where one group wins and the other loses.

While South Africa has made many significant advances to drive gender equality through laws and regulations, there is still more to be done. Organisations need to recognise the crucial role they play in bringing about change. It’s a journey, not a sprint, and if we work together, we can help transform the South Africa’s gender parity landscape for the better.

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