Can digital education improve gender equality in ICT careers in Kenya?

About 10 years ago, multi-billion dollar information communication technology (ICT) companies like Lyft, Pinterest, Slack and Uber didn’t exist. Today, certain aspects of the industry are not keeping up with the same rapid evolutionary processes as the rest of the sectorgender equality is chief among them.

As a member of the 11th cohort of the Echidna Global Scholars Program at Brookings, I aim to identify the root causes behind the exclusion of girls and young women from digital education at all levels – namely K-12, K-12, high school and tertiary education.

Worked in the ICT industry as a lecturer, trainer, and a practitioner for nearly 20 years, I can easily attest to this fact. While completing my undergraduate studies, my computer class had only one female student among 15 male students. Of the total number of computer science students I currently teach at my university, less than 9 percent are women. A quick look at the graduation certificates of various Kenyan universities reveals that the percentage of women graduating from university with ICT-related degrees is extremely low and the percentage decreases further as more universities are included in the sample. This phenomenon has been called the “leaky pipeline” where women and girls do not progress in their ICT-related studies, resulting in under-representation in ICT careers. Low graduation rates contribute to the low number of women eligible for digital careers, given that most employers will only hire digital experts who have a university degree, despite the fact that a large number of employees they may be self-taught.

ICT in Kenya

The gender imbalance in ICT in Kenya is part of the worlda broad problem. 2021 World Economic Forum Reportfor example, noted that only about 26 percent of artificial intelligence (AI) professionals globally are women, and in 2021 UNESCO report noted a strong gender imbalance globally in the representation of women in STEM fieldsand even more so in sub-Saharan Africa.

The gender gap in ICT careers in Kenya could easily have a negative impact on gender equality and economic empowerment efforts in most workplaces. A report from McKinsey and Company shows that in emerging economies, including Kenya, women account for approximately 40 percent of clerical support workers. Rapid advances in digital technology mean that the first victims of automation in terms of jobs are administrative, clerical and unskilled workers. Given that there is already a global shortage of women in the digital workplace, it is clear that the shift to digital economies will lead to increased unemployment rates among women in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Kenyan government has created a number of initiatives that seek to attract more boys and girls to ICT-related courses, most notably a recent Google-sponsored initiative to pilot coding projects in several primary schools. However, such initiatives fail to take into account existing gender inequalities and, most importantly, how to mitigate these inequalities.

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 education at all levelsnamely lower secondary, upper primary, lower secondary, lower secondary and higher education. The study will not only explore the mechanisms excluding girls at these levels, but also analyze the influence of early events on young girls’ future ICT career choices. 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 the lack of role models. The findings of the study will inform the design of an education policy framework aimed at bridging the gender gap in digital technology careers in Kenya.

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