The digital economy opens opportunities for new and lucrative careers in Kenya and across the globe, while at the same time eliminating a sizable number of administrative, clerical, and non-skilled jobs—with women the most affected by these changes. Most young women are missing out on technology-related career opportunities, which is even more worrying when coupled with the decline in job growth in fields traditionally dominated by women.
Yet the gender gap in the information and communications technology (ICT) workforce begins much earlier in women’s lives, as very few girls enroll in digital technology-related courses at the tertiary level of education. In Kenya, the rate of women graduating university with an ICT degree is disproportionately low, comprising less than 30 percent of ICT graduates, thus resulting in the underrepresentation of women in digital technology careers. As a 2022 Echidna Global Scholar, I decided to conduct a study on how Kenya can create a holistic education policy response that would help mitigate the cumulative disadvantages that exclude girls and young women from digital technology-related courses across their educational trajectories.
WHAT ARE THE CUMULATIVE DISADVANTAGES THAT ARE LEADING TO GENDER-BASED EXCLUSION IN DIGITAL RELATED COURSES IN KENYA?
My investigation sought to identify why girls and young women were not taking ICT courses from the lowest to the highest level of education. Some of my findings are highlighted below:
- Negative impact of gendered social norms
In focus groups, we examined whether girls were made to feel that certain homestead chores were meant for them, while others—especially physical chores—were meant for boys. The girls that believed that certain homestead chores were meant for girls and others for boys tended to lean toward career choices that have been traditionally associated with women, while those that did not report such biases felt that career choice should not be dictated by gender. The focus group data indicates that a relationship may exist between gendered social norms and the type of careers that girls find themselves in.
- Poor advocacy of digital technology careers
The majority of the girls in the study, at all levels of education, not only did not know about the existence of digital technology careers, but they also could not name a single woman in the ICT industry. This could be attributed to several factors: chief among them, a lack of exposure to women role models who work in ICT, unavailability of literature and media exposure promoting women working in ICT, and poor advocacy of digital technology careers during their education.
- Inadequate vocational counseling
Most of the young women who were pursuing ICT-related courses at the tertiary level had a reasonable amount of digital technology career knowledge, but most revealed that the ICT course that they were taking was an alternative option after they were unable to gain admission to their first-choice course. This indicates a lack of effective vocational counseling offered to the girls before they chose examinable courses in secondary school courses.
POLICY INTERVENTIONS TO HELP BRIDGE THE GENDER GAP IN DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY
- Build girls’ interest in ICT-related courses from the earliest years
The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development needs to ensure textbooks and study materials—at all levels of primary and secondary school education—contain literature and images of women in ICT careers. There is also a need for the ministry of education, with the ICT ministry, to partner with big tech companies operating in East Africa. Most of these companies are already pushing for more women in digital careers to assist with putting in place at both primary and secondary schools a girls’ coding program as well as ICT related extravaganzas, events, and hackathons for girls that are more effective. Such initiatives will not only create ICT awareness in the young girls’ minds but also build confidence in their abilities to use digital technology for various tasks and real-life problems.
- Increase advocacy and awareness
Big tech companies can help introduce girls at the earliest levels of education to locally- and internationally-based role models. It is equally important for more women who are successfully plying their trade in the ICT industry to be identified and invited to play an advocacy and mentorship role.
- Enhance vocational counseling for digital technology careers
Given that entry to university is based on individual subject performance coupled with overall performance on the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination and that secondary school students choose their examinable subject in the second year of education, it is important that vocational counseling sessions are held with students, especially girls, to help them choose a subject that will be admissible for ICT-related courses at the tertiary level of education.
I recently shared more on my research at the “Bridging the gender divide in digital technology careers in Kenya” workshop, held on December 6 as part of the research and policy symposium on gender equality in and through education on “De/reconstructing education as a space for transformative belonging and agency.”