By Anthony Luvanda
Around 10 years ago, multimillion-dollar information communication technology (ICT) companies like Lyft, Pinterest, Slack, and Uber were nonexistent. Today, certain aspects within the industry have not kept pace with their same rapid evolutionary processes as the rest of the sector—gender equality disparity chief among them.
As a member of the 11th cohort of the Echidna Global Scholars Program at Brookings, I seek to identify the root causes behind the exclusion of girls and young women from digital technology education at all levels—namely lower primary, upper primary, junior high school, senior high school, and tertiary education.
Having worked in the ICT industry as a lecturer, trainer, and practitioner for almost 20 years, I can easily attest to this fact. While completing my undergraduate studies, my computing class had only one female student among 15 male students. Out of the total computer science students that I currently lecture at my university, less than 9 percent are women. A quick perusal of various Kenyan universities’ graduation booklets reveals that the rate of women graduating from university with ICT-related degrees is extremely low and the rate diminishes further as more universities are included in the sample. This phenomenon has been termed the “leaky pipeline,” where women and girls do not advance in their ICT-related studies, thus culminating in underrepresentation in ICT careers. The low graduation rates contribute to the low number of women eligible for careers in digital technology, given that most employers will only hire digital technology experts that have a university degree, despite the fact that a good number of employees may be self-taught.
ICT in Kenya
The gender imbalance in ICT in Kenya is part of a worldwide problem. The 2021 World Economic Forum report, for example, observed that only about 26 percent of artificial intelligence (AI) professionals globally are female, and a 2021 UNESCO report noted a strong gender imbalance globally with regards to women’s representation in STEM fields—and even more so in sub-Saharan Africa.
The gender disparities in ICT-related careers in Kenya could easily impact negatively on the gender equality and economic empowerment efforts at most workplaces. A report by McKinsey and Company indicates that in emerging economies, including Kenya, women account for approximately 40 percent of clerical support workers. The rapid advancements in digital technology mean that the first automation casualties with regards to jobs are administrative, clerical, and nonskilled job holders. Bearing in mind that there is already a worldwide shortage of women in the digital technology workplace, it is clear that the move to digital economies will result in increased rates of unemployment among women in sub–Saharan Africa.
The Kenyan government has set up a number of initiatives that seek to attract more boys and girls to ICT-related courses, with the most notable being the recent Google-sponsored initiative to pilot coding projects in a few primary schools. Such initiatives, however, fail to consider existing gender disparities and, most importantly, how to mitigate these disparities.
As a member of the 11th cohort of the Echidna Global Scholars Program at Brookings, I seek to identify the root causes behind the exclusion of girls and young women from digital technology education at all levels—namely lower primary, upper primary, junior high school, senior high school, and tertiary education. The study will not only examine the mechanisms excluding girls at these levels but will also analyze the influence of early events on young girls’ future career choices with regard to ICT. That is, I will examine the effects of various inadequacies during the schooling process, such as social, economic, and infrastructural inequalities or even something as simple as a lack of role models. The results of the study will inform the design of an education policy framework aiming to bridge the gender divide in digital technology careers in Kenya.