Women in Tech in Ethiopia: We need to know more

May 20th, 2021 | Viewpoint

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Many studies show that we are closing the gender gap in tech, but like many industries, tech is still struggling when it comes to gender diversity. During a recent digital health hackathon, much effort was put into recruiting women and supporting their participation. Despite this, the overall participation of women was well below expectation. This experience encouraged our team to explore the underlying reasons for the low number of women in tech in Ethiopia.

Research in March 2020 revealed that female enrollment in science, tech, engineering, and math (STEM) fields at 15 public universities in Ethiopia is only 22 percent. An anonymous instructor at the Addis Ababa University College of Technology said that “A STEM class in a university looks like a men-only school.” Education is a foundation for professional endeavors, and this poor representation is directly related to the lack of female participation in the tech industry.

Even high-income countries that promote gender equality practices have a shortage of women in STEM education. In the United States, between 2017 and 2018, only 36 percent of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in STEM were women. According to research conducted in Europe by the statesofeuruoeantech.com in 2020, 80 percent of development operations engineers and 79 percent of full-stack developers are male.

During a conversation in March with our Digital Health Activity (DHA) female staff and youth working in the tech field, we captured great insights on challenges and opportunities for women in tech in Ethiopia. They reflected on how societal expectations of seeing women in the home hinder women’s ability to commit to the long and challenging process of earning degrees in tech fields. Some had been asked by family members why they would bother putting themselves through such hardship. Others had relatives who had suggested they change to a less demanding field of study so they could also attend to their family responsibilities.

As these women and youth said, leadership positions in the workplace are dominated by men and there is a lack of female role models. In most work settings, women are not encouraged to speak up and so find themselves in the background. Workplace environments that undermine or ignore gender equality and fail to provide a safe space for all employees also hinder women’s success in STEM. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women who leave STEM jobs were less likely to report they had opportunities for training and development, support from a manager, or support for balancing work and competing responsibilities. They were also more likely to report undermining behavior from managers.

The participants in our conversation included women in leadership positions within the DHA—USAID’s single largest bilateral investment in digital health. They had this advice for young women pursuing STEM careers:

  • Women should showcase their work on platforms where it can have good visibility from people in the field. Ask yourself, what have you contributed to the open-source community?
  • Clear and firm communication goes a long way for making our voices heard and commanding respect.
  • Studying computer science doesn’t mean that you have to become a developer. There are many more opportunities out there that you can explore.
  • Persistence is required to break the glass ceiling in almost any industry; tech is no exception.
  • Show, don’t tell! If you have a project idea, one of the best ways of getting buy-in is to build on it and show people. That way, you gain confidence in what you’re selling and you can own it as your personal idea.
  • Remember, you are a professional, so focus on what you have brought and can bring to the table in a professional capacity.

Upon further research on the realities of women in STEM employment, we discovered that women report lower satisfaction in their careers than men. A survey of 25 high-profile tech companies revealed only four companies in which women were more satisfied than male employees; 15 in which men were more satisfied than women; and six with equal satisfaction (Glassdoor, 2014). This and countless other research indicates the road ahead of us. We urge the academic community to conduct research on women in tech in our country.

Questions to pursue include:

  • Why is women’s enrollment in STEM very low?
  • What is the attitude of employers toward hiring women?
  • What is the percentage of professional tech occupations held by women?
  • What are the benefits that workplace diversity brings to innovation, problem-solving, and creativity in the tech sector?
  • Rates of attrition for technical women and the reasons behind it.

Written by Biruhtesfa Abere and Ethiopis Tadesse 

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