Why This Female Tech Pioneer Thinks The Industry Is Still Failing Women

Updated on 31 August 2017

Subscription Form (#66)
Reading Time: 3 minutes

This Women’s Month SME South Africa will celebrate South African women entrepreneurs, pioneers and innovators. Join us as we highlight their successes, sacrifices and struggles. Follow the conversation on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at #SMEWomenInnovate.

In her 30 years working within the tech space, Lorraine Steyn, founder of the software development organisationKhanyisa Real Systems (KRS), has seen the industry grow leaps and bounds and new opportunities emerge as a result. Steyn has also witnessed the challenges that continue to keep women out of the industry and the slow pace of transformation in the sector.

Steyn launched her first company in 1987 at the age of 24. She was the first woman outside the USA to become a Delphi Certified Developer, an integrated development software.

Today Steyn is a respected leader within the country’s ICT industry, and runs a company that employs more than 60 software developers. Her company also contributes to the development of young programmers. KRS runs an internship programme for 12 developers each year.

Some, But Not Enough

Women have made some progress, says Steyn, but only in what is referred to as “soft” titles such as project managers, designers, scrum managers and social media managers.

Where women are still a minority are technical related fields like software engineering and development. A 2014 survey by the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) of 711 IT practitioners revealed that only 21% of ICT jobs in South Africa are held by women.

Steyn says what is of concern is the numbers are on the decline.

“In every field for which you can get a degree, except tech, the number of women has been increasing. We have 53% of degrees going to women – more women than men! Computer Science needs a complete overhaul, as its performance is dismal when we look at all the other disciplines. What we are doing now isn’t working, in fact the number of women in tech drops every year.”

Are there more forces at play? Steyn shares the 5 challenges from STEM education and unsupportive work environments, to a lack of opportunities, that keep women out of tech. 

Gender stereotypes and roles are one of the first ways a young girl’s career choice is impacted, says Steyn.

“​This is a systemic problem, starting in our families and with traditional gender roles that give boys toys that encourage problem solving, where girls are given toys that encourage nurturing, like dolls. These unnatural limitations are bad for boys and girls.”

Computer gaming is one of the early ways that many young people are exposed to tech, and it largely continues to be a ‘boys domain‘, says Steyn.

“Boys have an edge through computer gaming. The whole online environment is quite hostile for women, and although many girls play computer games, they are put off from entering tech careers due to their impressions from gaming of the hostility to women.

“Of course, the business world is not a computer game, and it is much more ‘female friendly’. We need to show girls the opportunities for them in tech, so that they don’t slam their career option doors too early.”

See also: The 3 Stereotypes Pippa Tshabalala Is Tired Of As A Woman In Gaming

Similarly, from an early age computing devices are often given to boys and not girls, Steyn said in an interview with Venture Burn. This has a negative impact on girls’ interest in tech in later years, she adds.

“So we hear stories of women who go to varsity and they get into computer science and they find out that they are behind their male colleagues right from the get go.

“Firstly, at primary and high school, girls must have the same opportunities and encouragement as boys. This is a distressing trend where tech is more likely to be encouraged for boys, and discouraged for girls.”

Women entering the tech industry are not staying in the sector, says Steyn, and if they do, they move out to soft skill roles. This is largely because of the lack of support in the industry.

“It’s not just a case of getting there, to the job. You need support as well.”

Women working in tech, still work in what are very hostile environments, says Steyn.

“We need an honest appraisal of where toxic masculinity is driving women away. Women are good for business – software teams with a good gender balance, and that embrace diversity, outperform very homogenous teams, in general.

“There are more diverse contributions, and hence better solutions, from teams with a good gender, race and culture balance.”

So why do so many women move out of development and pursue “softer” roles? Steyn says some of it has to do with many women feeling isolated in the industry.

“There are now so few women in software development roles, that they feel isolated and lack female role models who could encourage and mentor them. Only the strongest are surviving in these roles, another big blow for our industry.”

Get Weekly 5-Minutes Business Advice

Subscribe to receive actionable business tips and resources.

Subscription Form (#66)

Feeling Stuck?