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Source: United Nations University

African women have always been active in agriculture, trade, and other economic pursuits, but a majority of them are in the informal labour force. In 1985, women's shares in African labour forces ranged from 17 per cent, in Mali, to 49 per cent in Mozambique and Tanzania (World Bank, 1989).

African women are guardians of their children's welfare and have explicit responsibility to provide for them materially. They are the household managers, providing food, nutrition, water, health, education, and family planning to an extent greater than elsewhere in the developing world. This places heavy burdens on them, despite developments such as improved agriculture technology, availability of contraception, and changes in women's socioeconomic status, which one might think would have made their lives easier. In fact, it would be fair to say that their workload has increased with the changing economic and social situation in Africa. Women's economic capabilities, and in particular their ability to manage family welfare, are being threatened. 'Modernization' has shifted the balance of advantage against women. The legal framework and the modern social sector and producer services developed by the independent African countries have not served women well.

Most African women, in common with women all over the world, face a variety of legal, economic and social constraints. Indeed some laws still treat them as minors. In Zaire, for instance, a woman must have her husband's consent to open a bank account. Women are known to grow 80 per cent of food produced in Africa, and yet few are allowed to own the land they work. It is often more difficult for women to gain access to information and technology, resources and credit. Agricultural extension and formal financial institutions are biased towards a male clientele' despite women's importance as producers (this has spurred the growth of women's groups and cooperatives which give loans and other help). Women end up working twice as long as men, 15 to 18 hours a day, but often earn only one tenth as much. With such workloads, women often age prematurely. Harrison correctly observes that: 'Women's burdens - heavy throughout the third world - are enough to break a camel's back in much of Africa' (Harrison 1983).

Female education affects family health and nutrition, agricultural productivity, and fertility, yet there is a wide gender gap in education. Lack of resources and pressures on time and energies put enormous constraints on the ability of women to maintain their own health and nutrition as well as that of their children. As a result, women are less well equipped than men to take advantage of the better income-earning opportunities that have emerged in Africa. Although food and nutrition are women's prime concerns in Africa, and they are the principal participants in agriculture, independent farming by women has been relatively neglected. Women's family labour contribution has increased, but goes unpaid.

In industry and trade, women have been confined to small-scale operations in the informal sector; however vibrant these operations are and despite the trading empires built up by the most successful female entrepreneurs, women's average incomes are relatively low. Women are also handicapped in access to formal sector jobs by their lower educational attainments, and those who succeed are placed in lower grade, lower paid jobs. Elite women who wish to improve their legal and economic status must expect to lose honour and respect (Obbe, 1980). There is often sexism in job promotions and unpleasant consequences if women stand up to men. There is often more respect for male professionals (even from women themselves) than there is for female. Women often suffer employment discrimination because they need to take time off for maternity leave or when a child is sick. Career women often have to work harder at their jobs to keep even with their male counterparts. Despite all these obstacles, women continue to move into different professions, including those traditionally seen as male jobs, such as engineering and architecture. Women can be found at senior levels in many organizations in many countries. They are also taking up various different professions, such as law, medicine, politics, etc. These women may be in the minority now, but things are changing all over Africa.

Social attitudes to women are responsible for the gender differences in both the education system and the labour force, as we will see below. Differential access to educational and training opportunities has led to low proportions of women in the formal sector and their subsequent concentration in low paid production jobs with limited career prospects. So, although women play an important role in African society, they suffer legal, economic and social constraints.

African women and education

Women's participation in national educational systems is again biased due to the sociocultural and economic environments. There is also a lack of genuine political will to ensure that girls are given equal access to education in Africa. More than two-thirds of Africa's illiterates are women. Women are regarded as inferior to men and are not expected to aspire as high as men, especially in what are considered as 'male' fields (engineering, computing, architecture, medicine, etc.). It is largely assumed that educating women would make them too independent; in other words, they would not do what they are expected to do - look after the house, bring up children, and cater to their husband's needs.

In poor countries, extending access to education and training is often difficult when the cultural and monetary costs are high or the benefits are limited. When families face economic problems they prefer to invest their limited resources in the education of boys rather than provide what is considered as 'prestigious' education for girls who would eventually marry and abandon their professions anyway. Nevertheless, girls are increasingly getting some limited education, and the focus of concern is gradually shifting to providing access to the same range of educational opportunities open to boys. In poor families, boys are often given first claim on whatever limited educational opportunities are available, although the global policy climate today is more supportive of measures designed to expand the educational horizons of girls than it was twenty years ago.

Even when parents can be persuaded of the value of sending their girls to school, there remains the problem of helping the girls to complete their studies. Drop out rates in the primary grades are higher for girls than for boys in many African countries. In Tanzania, for instance, half of the school dropouts each year are girls of 12 to 14 years who have to leave school because of pregnancies. Such early pregnancies are often blamed on the absence of family life education and the imitation of foreign life styles.

Very few schools allow pregnant girls or young mothers to complete their education. The other half of the Tanzanian pupils who drop out do so for a variety of reasons, including poverty, traditional norms, increases in school fees and deterioration in the quality of learning. Child marriages are also very common in Africa: although the law in many countries does not allow girls under 16 to be married, parents marry their daughters at an early age so they have one less mouth to feed.

Differences in national and regional educational patterns are in part due to differences in population pressures and resource availability, but they have also reflected differing policy priorities. But there have been signs, in recent years, of a growing international consensus on the importance of investing in education for the quality of life in society and for national development generally (UNESCO, 1991). Table 12.1 shows that, in Africa, as in South Asia and the Arab states, the general literacy rate for women is much lower than for men, and that the gap is not expected to narrow rapidly. The differences between these three regions and the rest of the world may be due to differences in enrolment levels, government expenditure on education or the general sociocultural and economic environment.

The enrolment ratios for both men and women also show some differences (see Table 12.2). Although the number of females who have been continuing on to the secondary level in Africa has increased, and the gap between male and female enrolments is narrowing, the increase in the number of women continuing to tertiary education has been minimal. The figures for Africa are the lowest in the world. As mentioned earlier, in most developing countries, the opportunities for girls to advance beyond the first level of formal education are still significantly less than for boys.

Table 12.1 Projected adult literacy rates by sex (% literate adults in the population aged 15 or over)

 

1990

2000

Both

Male

Female

Both

Male

Female

Sub-Saharan Africa

47.3

59.8

36.1

59.7

70.2

49.6

Arab States

51.3

64.3

38.0

62.0

73.1

50.6

Latin America & Caribbean

84.7

86.4

83.0

88.5

89.7

87.3

East Asia

76.2

85.7

66.4

82.8

90.0

75.4

South Asia

46.1

59.1

32.2

54.1

66.2

41.2

Developed countries

96.7

97.4

96.1

98.5

99.0

98.0

Source: UNESCO. 1991: p. 26

Table 12.2 Male and female enrolment ratios by level of education in 1970 and 1990 (% estimates)

 

1970

1990

First level

Second level

Third level

First level

Second level

Third level

Male

Female

Male

Female

Male

Female

Male

Female

Male

Female

Male

Female

Sub-Saharan Africa

56.7

36.0

9.9

4.4

0.8

0.2

73.5

59.9

21.2

13.8

2.8

1.0

Arab states

77.9

46.4

28.1

12.5

6.3

2.0

92.3

74.2

60.2

44.9

15.6

9.5

Latin American end Caribbean

91.9

89.4

26.3

24.6

8.0

4.5

111.4

107.2

55.7

59.6

19.3

18.2

East Asia

107.9

94.5

33.1

23.6

1.6

1.1

124.6

114.9

58.7

47.7

7.3

4.9

South Asia

87.1

53.2

30.7

13.1

7.4

2.2

100.8

75.1

47.8

28.2

12.1

5.3

North America

103.5

102.8

92.6

93.6

52.8

37.8

103.0

101.4

98.4

99.5

66.7

74.1

Source: UNESCO, 1991: p. 53

Public expenditure on education in Africa is, in dollar terms, the lowest in the world; not surprising considering Africa's economic situation. However, if we consider expenditure as a percentage of GNP, there is not that much difference between all of the developing nations. Women's enrolment rates are lower in Africa, but the female literacy rate is similar to that for women in the Arab states and South Asia. Such discrepancies might be due to differences in government policies or in the sociocultural environment in these countries.

No statistics are available for the number of women who attend computer science courses in Africa, but it is known that few women in tertiary education are in technical courses. Table 12.4 presents figures from a project carried out by the ILO in association with the Commonwealth Association of Polytechnics in Africa, and summarized by Leigh-Doyle (1991). These figures show the poor enrolment ratios for women in technical programmes.4 There are marked differences between countries, in both women's polytechnic attendance and in their enrolment in technical programmes in particular. The share of women in all polytechnic courses ranges from 40 per cent in the Gambia to just 2 per cent in Zambia. One striking observation is that 30 per cent of all those attending polytechnics in Ghana are women, yet only I per cent of those attending technical programmes are women!

Overall, the figures for women attending technical programmes are low in most of these countries. When the author was teaching computer science to final year degree students at the University of Zimbabwe four years ago, there were only four female students out of a class of 30. The figures for female enrolment ratios in many of the other universities and polytechnics offering computer science or related courses in the East and Southern African states the author has visited were not very much different - around 10 per cent. The female enrolment ratios in some of the private sector training programmes were much higher, nearly 40 per cent, although many of these women were from the ethnic minorities. Although no figures are available, a number of women are also trained privately by their employers in various areas of IT and a few privileged women also obtain their 'computing' qualifications abroad, mainly in the USA or the UK. These numbers are small although they may not be insignificant.

Table 12.3 Public expenditure on education, 1970-1988

 

US$ (billion)

Percentage of GNP

1970

1975

1980

1985

1988

1970

1975

1980

1985

1988

Sub-Saharan Africa

1.3

4.0

11.0

8 0

7.1

3.1

3.8

4.9

4.3

4.5

Arab states

1.8

8.4

18.0

23.8

27.7

5.0

5.9

4.4

6.0

6.4

Latin American and Caribbean

5.6

13.6

32.7

28.6

38.9

3.3

3.6

3.9

4.0

4.4

East Asia

2.6

6.3

15.5

19.9

24.4

1.9

2.3

2.7

3.2

2.9

South Asia

2.2

5.3

12.8

14.8

24.0

2.6

3.0

4.0

3.4

3.6

North America

83.0

131.3

201.8

293.3

365.7

7.5

7.4

6.7

6.7

6.8

Source: UNESCO, 1991: p. 36

Table 12.4 Student enrolment in selected polytechnics in nine African countries, 1989

 

All programmes

Technical programmes

Total students

% Female

Total students

% Female

Yaba College of Technology, Nigeria

8,510

25

3,862

12

Kenya Polytechnic, Nairobi

3,488

24

2,627

17

Accra Polytechnic, Ghana

2,498

30

1,083

1

Malawi Polytechnic

1,033

14

664

3

Dar es Salaam Technical College, Tanzania

955

7

955

7

Botswana Polytechnic

621

5

621

5

Uganda Polytechnic

566

9

566

9

Technical Training Institute, The Gambia

532

40

265

11

Northern Technical College, Zambia

195

2

495

2

Source: Leigh-Doyle, 1991: p.437

If the figures are to be believed, the 10 per cent female enrolment in African institutions is not that much different to some developed countries such as the UK. The Women in Information Technology (WIT) Foundation of UK found that female enrolments in university computer science courses had dropped from 25 per cent in the 1970s to 10 per cent in 1991 (Classe, 1992). This is very low compared to 45 per cent in the USA and 56 per cent in Singapore, and the figure is difficult to believe from my experience of such courses at universities and polytechnics in UK. The reasons for such a drop, if there is one to begin with, are not clearly stated.

It has often been said that, if there were more female teachers and lecturers who could act as a role model to girls, there would possibly be an increase in the number of girls attending such establishments, especially from the Muslim community. However, we can see from Table 12.5 that there are very few female staff in many of the African polytechnics. The number of women teaching technical programmes varies from country to country. In Nigeria and Tanzania, a large proportion of the female lecturers are teaching technical programmes whilst in Malawi the figure is much lower.

Statistics show that the overall share of females in vocational and technical education in thirty-nine sub-Saharan countries increased by only one percentage point in the period 1970 to 1983, from 27 to 28 per cent of all participants (World Bank, 1988). Few employees in the modern economic sectors in Africa are women, and their participation is linked to their level of education. In industry, women generally hold low skill, low paid jobs with limited opportunities for promotion. Very few women are managers, and although more women are now in senior scientific and professional positions, they still represent a very small proportion of those employed in this category. Science and technology has generally been dominated by men, and women everywhere have found it difficult to make it to the top. The differences in the numbers of women working in technical fields can be ascribed to a variety of causes, rooted in the culture and history of each country.

A number of studies have been done on women's under-representation in the scientific and technical fields worldwide, by ATRCW (1986), Harding (1987), Lockheed and Gorman (1987), Byrne (1988), Anker and Hein (1985), Leigh-Doyle (1991), etc. Some of the factors which they state influence women's participation (not in order of importance) are: prejudices about women's abilities and attitudes; their roles; their behaviour and aspirations; culture, politics and society; absence of role models; macho image of science; parental expectations, beliefs, attitude and home environment; teacher attitudes and behaviour; curriculum; career guidance; employer attitudes; lack of education and training facilities; lack of quotas; lack of exposure to technically oriented subjects; group pressures at home and at school; classroom interactions between girls and boys; lack of school books and resource materials; and lack of confidence to try new things. This list is long, and further research would be required to find out exactly which factors influence women's participation in technical fields in Africa.

Table 12.5 Distribution of teaching staff in selected polytechnics in eight African countries, 1989

 

All programmes

Technical programmes

Total staff

% Female

Total staff

% Female

Yaba College of Technology, Nigeria 284 19 179 16
Kenya Polytechnic, Nairobi 270 22 203 6
Malawi Polytechnic 117 12 72 1
Dares Salaam Technical College, Tanzania 119 15 104 11
Botswana Polytechnic 120 3 114 0
Uganda Polytechnic 100 3 100 3
Technical Training Institute, The Gambia 40 5 34 0
Northern Technical College, Zambia 58 2 57 0

Source: Leigh-Doyle 1991: p.438

The under-representation of women in technical education, training and employment is not unique to Africa. The situation in Africa must be seen in the context of the serious economic and developmental problems facing many African countries (Leigh-Doyle, 1991). This, together with the societal attitude to women in general, is responsible for the gender differences both in education establishments and in the workforce. Differential access to educational and training opportunities have led to low proportions of women in the formal sector and their concentration in low paid production jobs with limited career prospects.

However, as elsewhere in the developing world, things are slowly changing for women in Africa. More women are joining the formal sector of the economy (especially the public sector), more girls are continuing to higher education and joining technical courses, more women can be found in the management hierarchy, more women are moving into professions so far dominated by men, and more women are becoming self employed. In the years to come, we will see many changes, although the poor economic situation in Africa will not provide many job opportunities. There will be more competition for jobs and women may lose out, especially where there are domestic and family demands placed on them.

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.Source: United Nations University

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