Women breaking into 'boys club' and thriving in tech

Until recently, the tech industry was one big boys club. Gender bias, right from recruitment to employment terms ensured that few women thrived in the sector and even fewer rose up the rank to the coveted C-suite.

But now companies are employing several strategies to boost their appeal to women and reap the benefits of a diverse workplace. And it appears to be paying off.

A survey done by audit, consulting, tax, and advisory firm Deloitte showed that women's share in the overall global tech workforce increased by 6.9 percent between 2019 and 2022 while their share in technical positions grew by 11.7 percent.

But it is at the top level where big changes are taking place, promising to make the industry more inclusive.

Catherine Muraga, the managing director (MD) of Microsoft Africa Development Centre is among the women correcting the industry’s gender imbalance. Her love for tech, she says, started from a young age.

“Curiosity played a big role when I was young, wondering about gadgets and systems and what made them work – from a simple watch on my hand to household equipment,” she says.

She knew her life was technology and technology was her life. She enrolled for a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science. After finishing her studies, she started a career as a network engineer for an internet service provider (ISP) in 2003.

She says that working for ISP Kenya jump-started her entry into a bigger tech space, opening opportunities in Kenya’s leading firms such as Kenya Airways, Stanbic Bank Kenya, and Sidian Bank in different senior information technology positions.

Her tenacity paid off in April 2022, when Microsoft Africa Development Centre, which is Microsoft’s engineering hub in Nairobi that nurtures local innovations and solutions, named her the new MD. “Now that I have access to resources and capacity to drive change, I aim to continue guiding growth and mentorship in the technology space,” she tells the Business Daily.

Rising to the top, however, came with numerous challenges. Like thousands of women in the industry, she had to endure prejudices in the workplace. “There are a few, some laughable and others a little more serious that I have faced; but I choose not to dwell on them,” she says.

“One that is quite prevalent is some people think women do not have the same technical skills as men. The tech industry is one of the most demanding and has no room for hanging on; if a woman occupies a role in the tech world, be sure that she has worked for it and earned it equal rights as anyone else,” she adds.

Ms Muraga is among Kenyan women who have recently assumed key-tech positions in local and international firms as they seek to promote diversity in workplaces. Cellulant, a Pan-African payment technology company, recruited Faith Gitonga as its Kenyan MD. Cellulant’s digital payment infrastructure connects consumers and businesses to banks and mobile network operators in 35 markets and has offices in 18 African countries.

Ms Gitonga began her career as a banker at the now SBM Bank as well as Sidian Bank, then had stints at Oracle, and served on the board of TechnoServe, among others.

“I got my start in technology when I accepted a position at Oracle directing their digital initiatives for the public sector. The decision to switch to Oracle was strategic because, despite having numerous C-suite offers, I didn’t want to join any firm as an executive without gaining the required tech experience,” she says.

Track record

The dynamic nature of technology inspires her. "One is presented with a new challenge each day, which provides daily motivation to find a solution,” she says, adding, “I have a deep-seated drive to succeed in the tech industry. I had a solid track record in banking, and I want to leave an even stronger one in technology.”

Unlike other women in the tech space, she has not experienced gender stereotypes. “To be honest, I haven't run into these stereotypes. However, I have heard of situations where men were given tech responsibilities when women were more qualified, and I have heard of individuals referring to the tech industry as a man's space.”

“Things are evolving, and that business today is undoubtedly better than it was a few years ago. Women are increasingly at the helm of technical teams at Cellulant and even in other tech firms,” says Ms Gitonga who sits on four boards, one of them being the Women on Boards Network, where she coaches and trains women to be board-ready.

Tala, a mobile lending app, is also giving women opportunities in key tech positions. Mumbi Annstella is the firm’s senior country growth manager. An engineer by training, she was exposed to the tech in the early stage of her career. She started as an intern under the Unilever Leadership Internship Programme. She later worked with Moringa School, an accelerator programme that nurtures Africa's tech talent.

“I feel fortunate to be part of the many incredible women leading top tech companies in Africa,” she says.

Similarly, Meta, formerly known as Facebook, recruited former Microsoft Kenya country lead Kendi Ntwiga as its new global head of misrepresentation. She is tasked with scaling Meta’s enforcement of community standards.

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