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Women and information technology

As there are neither statistics nor literature on the position of women in information technology in Africa, as users or as IT professionals, or what impact IT has had on them, we can only make some deductions and predictions based on the preceding sections and on literature relating to other regions.

The problems with under-utilization of present capacity, lack of computer literacy and of education and training facilities have been described above. Access to training is limited for both men and women, but men may be given priority for admission in the belief that they are more likely to use their qualifications. Computing is still seen as a man's job in Africa, like many other professions. Men are also meant to be 'better' in many ways, although statistics from Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria show that final year female students perform better than their male counterparts in both the computer hardware and software disciplines offered by the university (Soriyan and Aina, 1991).

The previous section showed that the literacy rate for African women is low, and that very few women are entering tertiary education or joining technical programmes. This, together with the figures from the World Bank (1988) showing that the female share in vocational and technical education was only 28 per cent in 1983, may say something about the likely role of women in the IT area in Africa. If overall literacy is low and very few women are joining technical programmes, we would expect the proportion of women in the IT field, as users or professionals, to be low.

Although there are few figures to back this up, from the author's experience in Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe, there are very few women at the systems analyst, managerial or consultant levels. The few women who have reached such professional levels are from the ethnic minorities (white Zimbabweans in Southern Africa and Indians in East Africa). Women are badly under-represented in IT management jobs everywhere and it is no surprise that women in Africa, considering their position in society, have not made it. For instance, in the UK, according to research done by ICL and IBM, 32 per cent of trainee systems analysts were women, while only 3 per cent of data processing managers were women. The research also found a marked decline in recent years in female entrants to the sector, without explaining why this is so.5 The report concludes that:

Women are as well suited as men, and on some aspects more suited, to work in the new organizational and IT environment where the emphasis is on building relationships and on seeing different connections between people and technology.

One can now find more women programmers and operators in a number of African countries, both in public and private sectors, but there are very few indigenous female lecturers or teachers in computer-related courses. Until last year, only two of the staff of ten at the Computer Science department of the University of Zimbabwe were women - both expatriate. The Institute of Computer Science at the University of Nairobi is known to have recruited its first female lecturer recently. Little is known about the situation in other countries. To the author's knowledge, there are very few African female IT professionals although there are many who are users of the technology. Even less is known about the successful implementation of IT in organizations and what impact this has had on women, especially those whose jobs the automation may have directly influenced. Case studies would be needed to establish the size and direction of the impact of IT.

But, bearing in mind the lack of generalizable evidence, it does appear that the likely impact of IT on women, and the role they are playing in the IT area, may be minimal, considering the general status of women in African societies and their position in the technical fields. With the increased penetration of computers in organizations, both in the public and private sectors in Africa, there must have been some impact, however small, positive or negative, on women. For instance, the introduction of computers in most government ministries (more women in Africa work in the public sector than in the formal private sector), some jobs undertaken by women may have been eliminated by automation and others may have been created. Women do most of the data entry work - although changing technology may eventually make data entry pools obsolete - and therefore jobs may have been created in this area. With so many women working in the services sector (three times more than in industry) in Africa, and the increasing emphasis on automation in this sector, IT is bound to have had some impact on women's employment. Women, who are concentrated lower down in the hierarchy in low status jobs, are often easy targets when it comes to getting rid of people. Their employment is particularly vulnerable to automation because of their concentration in work with low skill requirements.

The introduction of computer-based technology into clerical work can build on women's skills, and may have given them new opportunities to enhance human skills. But in the financial sector- banks and insurance companies - where computer technology has penetrated most in Africa, computerization is believed to have limited employment growth. However, without further information, it would be wrong to reach certain conclusions.

The manufacturing sector is of no great importance in many African countries, and has not been extensively automated. Moreover, the current economic and political crisis faced by Africa will not allow extensive automation or major industrial growth in the foreseeable future. It is therefore difficult to predict what impact IT may have on women working in these areas. It does appear that the impact of IT on women has been different from organization to organization and nation to nation. In some

South East Asian countries, jobs have been created for women in IT manufacturing and assembly, although the importance of cheap female labour is slowly decreasing, whilst in many other countries, such as Japan, automation has reduced the employment opportunities for low skilled women. In Singapore, for instance, where the government's focus is on using IT for national development, nearly 55 per cent of the workers in the IT sector in 1987 were women (Chew and Chew, 1990). This figure is higher than that in some of the more advanced countries such as USA, and is largely due to the Singaporean government's policies and incentives for working mothers. The situation in Africa is very different, and no such impact can be expected there. Direct foreign investment in manufacturing and assembly work, where many of the women in South East Asia are employed, does not exist in Africa. Distance from the markets and poor communications facilities also mean that data entry work has not taken off in Africa as it has in the Caribbean.


It is difficult to predict exactly what the impact of information technology has been on African women, or what role they play in the area, due to the paucity of information. However, we saw earlier that IT has had little overall impact on these nations themselves - or on their development efforts - and one may therefore be tempted to conclude that IT may have had little significant impact on African women. Although many developments are occurring in the computer area in Africa, there is a great deal of under-utilization of equipment due to lack of skilled personnel, poor strategic buying plans, and scarcity of foreign exchange to import the hardware and software. There is lack of sufficient computer education and training facilities in many countries, which has further aggravated the problem of lack of skills. Scarce foreign currency has been wasted in many cases and there are doubts whether Africa needs IT at all for its development, as it is largely held back by economic and social structures and value systems which have perpetuated under-development. There is a general feeling that technology alone will not be able to change such structures and many doubt its need.

The majority of African women are involved in the informal economy. They often do not enjoy equal opportunities with men. The attitudes towards women, by both men and women themselves, have often suppressed the development or advancement of women. The existing sociocultural norms have so far restricted girls' and women's access to education, training and employment. Poor grounding in maths and science subjects at primary level, and the lack of exposure to technically-oriented subjects, limit their performance in these subjects at secondary school and their access to technical programmes at the tertiary level. African governments themselves have done very little to promote women's participation in technical education, training and employment. Employers' stereotyped attitudes (especially towards working mothers) regarding women's abilities and competence in technical fields mean that few women are recruited. Silent discrimination and stereotyping also exists in many organizations, with the result that even women already in employment are not always given the opportunity to prove their worth (Leigh-Doyle, 1991). Sex-stereotyping on the part of parents, educators, religion, the media and society at large encourage the impression that certain jobs are exclusively for men. Women's own lack of confidence also influences their entry into certain fields and jobs. Often, it is not the technology which is a problem but the economic, social and political structures which keep women in low paid and low status work, whatever the level of technology.

Women's 'double shift', at home and at work, undoubtedly affects their professional progress. In Africa, the home shift may in many cases include caring for parents, in-laws and younger siblings. In addition, women often have to work twice as hard to prove to men that they are also capable of doing their jobs well. The role of a woman is often taken for granted. Essential activities would come to a standstill but for their participation, especially where the 'women's work' syndrome excuses men from attempting it. There is often a conflict between the three roles of mother, wife and employee, and many feel a sense of guilt and give up employment. The demands on working women and their burdens have in fact increased. So it should not be surprising if women were not taking up employment, although IT may offer opportunities for skilled women, due to the scarcity of skilled computer personnel in Africa.

There is certainly a need for more education and training opportunities for girls and women in Africa, both for overall national development and to improve their quality of life. Before this could take place, however, a major programme would be needed to make policy-makers, parents, educators, employers, and others aware of the importance of girls' and women's education. Women's general literacy rate and scientific and technological knowledge have to be addressed before anything can be done about their computer literacy. However it would be a tactical error to introduce programmes only for women. Women should be able to participate actively in such programmes, without treating them as a segregate population. There is also a need for equal employment opportunities and facilities for working women to enable them both to pursue a career and raise a family.

Given the paucity of information, it is difficult to say whether 'women and information technology in Africa' should be a topic of discussion or not, whether we should first examine other issues concerning women in Africa, or whether Africa needs IT at all. As it is not clear what role women are playing in this area, or what impact the technology has had on them, further research would be required to reach some conclusions. Patterns of employment must differ across the continent, and a thorough understanding of the changes occurring in any one country would require in-depth research. Case studies on the importance of women in IT, and the impact of IT on women, to show the differences in context across countries, may be required. This may help identify the potential of IT for women, whether there are jobs in the area, and, if so, how women are going to reap the benefits. Such case studies could also examine the issue of equal opportunities for jobs. However, any further research should consider class and race, as well as gender: women's participation in the IT area must be seen in the context of the domination of the field by certain classes and races. Examination of such issues would help identify their impact on the majority of the indigenous population. Further research on women's situation in Africa would also help answer some of the questions raised in the introduction.

[This essay, with its more pessimistic assessment, is rather different in orientation from the other contributions to the volume. It seemed to us important that it should be included, in order to reflect a wider spectrum of views on these issues - Editors.]


1 This paper will largely focus on the impact of computers on women, although IT and computers will be used interchangeably.

2 From here on referred to as Africa. The North African countries and South Africa are not included in this analysis.

3 [However the discussant to this paper, Dr. S. Wangwe, and others have presented many examples of large organizations in sub-Saharan Africa which have successfully absorbed information technology. These examples underline the lack of properly-grounded empirical research in the field. Eds]

4 Leigh-Doyle does not specify in her work what constitutes a technical programme. As no such distinction is made, it will be assumed that all IT related courses are classified as technical programmes.

5 Financial Times, 18 October 1991.


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