A generation ago, the African woman may have spent hours walking to market, fetching clean water, negotiating paid work, or securing health care. Today she is more likely to wave down a scooter or minivan taxi, enjoy reliable taps, connect by mobile phone, and wave down a mobile clinic with tele-medicine capacity. She strives just as hard as ever, but technology continues to alter the opportunities surrounding her.
Ingenuity disrupts entire industries. Automation reduces and replaces human muscle. Innovations overhaul national economies. Cities drain rural populations. All these transformations, for better or worse, shape the outlook of the professional woman and her sense of place in an increasingly complex and fast-moving world. Each development may open new choices for the African woman, or funnel her toward jobs based on repetitive, menial tasks within mechanical, aeronautics, or textile industries.
Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal, Seychelles, Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania, and Uganda outrank OECD countries like Australia, Canada or the United States as having among the highest number of women parliamentarians in the world.
Gender gaps close or open due largely to policy, which depends on politics, which in turn depends on politicians. Encouragingly, it is today far more acceptable throughout the world, including in Africa, to see those positions of public leadership filled by women.
In April 2012, Malawi’s first female president, Joyce Banda, travelled to Liberia to meet President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who announced she “is not going to be lonely among men anymore.” They were joined two years later by Catherine Samba-Panza, president of the Central African Republic (CAR), the fourth African female head of state.
Since the mid-1990s, from local water boards to national parliaments, the African woman has increasingly grown politically engaged and assertive. Indeed, Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal, Seychelles, Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania, and Uganda outrank OECD countries like Australia, Canada or the United States as having among the highest number of women parliamentarians in the world.
However, the different, top layers in the public sector still need some stimulus in order to reach a good level of women’s involvement. Likewise, the private sector has a long way to go, with just several women occupying the corner office of major multinational, African businesses. And balancing positions means little so long as women are paid less than men for the same work. At current levels of progress, it will take more than 250 years for Africa’s women to achieve full parity.
Why is progress so slow? Why does Africa’s economic gender gap still yawn so wide?
One primary reason is the lack of any reliable health care infrastructure. When public or private institutions fail to provide supportive care for sick, infirm, and elderly family members, that hard, expensive, and time-consuming work invariably falls, at an early age, to women. Nursing for others prevents the African woman from becoming who she really wants to be.
One would think information technology might improve the situation, but the picture turns out to be more complicated, and leads us to the second driver behind the persistent gender gap: the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (4thIR). This term captures the dynamics unfolding in the workplace and at home, unleashed by IT – robotics and remote sensing, 3D printing and artificial intelligence, Big Data, and the Internet of Things. These advances tell us which route is fastest, recognize faces from photos, answer questions asked into phones. They merge the physical, digital, and biological worlds in ways that offer both exciting promise and extraordinary peril.
Unless the Africa woman is prepared to be left behind in tomorrow’s Revolution, she must wake up and lean in today, prepared not only to be part of the game but to become a leader of this disruptive new trend.
Among the first jobs to be eliminated and replaced by the 4thIR are those with primarily clerical, administrative, and repetitive tasks, and these positions were overwhelmingly held by women. Innovative disruption may often create more opportunities, even as it destroys others. But new and emerging jobs – depending on skills and experience in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), do not have a lot of women in the pipeline. Unless the Africa woman is prepared to be left behind in Tomorrow’s Revolution, she must wake up and lean in today, prepared not only to be part of the game but to become a leader of this disruptive new trend.
The United Nations has outlined seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to be achieved by 2030. SDG #5 is to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” Specifically, nations in Africa and elsewhere must “end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere,” and “eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres.”
Emerging technologies could help realize that goal, but only if harnessed to progressive policies. We live in an age of facial-recognition ATMs, biometric authentication, smart phone money transfers, mobile banking, and other financial technology. Yet around the world, there are still 72 countries, including many in Africa, where women cannot even open a Bank account, let alone aspire for getting a credit to start a business. How can the African woman believe in a dream of launching her own company and playing a responsible role in shaping the future if she cannot be empowered to handle her own money?
In the bold, new digital economy of the 21st Century, we cannot expect meaningful change until or unless public policies ensure that women and men share the same rights, the same risks, the same rewards, and the same responsibilities.
 Bouhia, Hynd. African Girl, Africa Woman : How agile…tech savvy and empowered female will transform the continent. Amazon. April 2020
Mahlet Getachew, Tynesia Boyea-Robinson & Lissa Glasgo
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