Tinyiko Simbine, CFO and COO of GirlCode, on attracting young females to seek careers in ICT


Q: Traditionally, the ICT sector has been male-dominated. Is that still the case?
A: Things are definitely changing. It’s happening very slowly, but we are seeing a change. And even though the ICT space is still very much male-dominated, there is much more awareness now of the role women can play in the sector. More and more large corporates have taken the decision to work actively towards changing the narrative by employing more females, and by partnering with organisations such as GirlCode. Our current partners include the likes of AWS, Mint and Deloitte.

Q: With rare exceptions, the leaders of ‘big tech’ are all men. How would the industry be different if the Elon Musks and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world were women?
A: Well first of all, a McKinsey study has found that advancing women’s equality could add $12 trillion to the global economy by 2025. In a best-case scenario, that number could jump to $28 trillion. This could be realised by ensuring greater equality and opportunities for women. There is also a lack of businesses that accurately target the needs of women. Women have first-hand insight into the issues other women face, and in developing innovative solutions to address these issues, women can both help solve the problems faced by half the world’s population and create entirely new industries.

Q: What are the other benefits of bringing women – and girls – into tech?
A: Technology needs girls to help invent the future. Especially in a country where there are millions of unemployed young people, it’s important that we break the stereotype that technology careers are ‘too hard’ for girls. There are significant economic benefits to it as well. A study by the IMF concluded that the promotion of women has a lasting impact on the economic and social situation of a country. Not least, that influence can be seen in the GDP, where the possibilities for economic growth increase significantly. The economy depends on the best to do the job. Without the potential of women, it loses too much. SA can no longer afford this if we want to keep pace as a digital and innovation location on an international level. We need to create an environment that actively and specifically promotes talent.

Q: GirlCode launched in 2014. What progress have you seen since then in terms of female empowerment in the ICT sector?
A: More and more people and companies have recognised the gender gap in the tech industry and have taken it upon themselves to work towards closing it. In the eight years since GirlCode launched we have seen a few organisations like ours emerge, and that has given us opportunities for collaboration. Tech companies have also put various measures in place to work actively towards hiring more female tech talent – and, importantly, towards nurturing that talent. Those measures include starting female-empowerment initiatives within the business, as well as committing to employ a specific number of females within a given period.

Q: In the early days you focused on hackathons, but you’ve since introduced initiatives such as GirlCoder Club and the online bootcamp. What was the thinking behind that shift?
A: The use of digital skills has become part of our everyday lives. Many of our day-to-day activities are now facilitated by and through the use of technology. South Africans need access to these skills, and they need to not only survive but thrive in the digitally advanced world we are living in. The youth are being left behind, yet our country’s future lies with them. After realising that having a computer-science degree wasn’t enough for graduates to get job opportunities, we saw the need to close that gap. That’s not just the gender gap, but also the gap of SA’s very high youth-unemployment rate.

Q: Are teenage female learners typically intimidated by tech?
A: Yes, they are. That’s why it is so important for us to get girls playing with tech from an early age, so that they can become comfortable with it. As women in the sector, we know that a major issue many women face is that of ‘imposter syndrome’, where they still feel that they don’t belong in the space, and are intimidated by the men they’re surrounded by. That’s what makes our GirlCodeHack so important. It provides networking  opportunities for girls in tech around the country, and enables girls to showcase their skills and have a chance at solving real-life problems using technology.

Q: What other challenges or barriers do women face when they try to start careers in tech?
A: As we touched on earlier, there’s a lack of female leaders whom they can look up to. As a young girl, it is very important for you to have role models who look just like you, to give you that extra push. Your ability to thrive and succeed increases. Our vision at GirlCode is to create a network of women who are highly skilled in software development and leadership skills; who will contribute towards an inclusive and innovative technology industry. We plan on growing our GirlCoders into becoming leaders, and in turn paying it forward for the younger girls who are coming up under them.

Q: GirlCode is known for its mentorship model. What successes have you seen with developing female mentors in the IT space?
A: Again, when you have people who look just like you, whom you can look up to, your ability to thrive and succeed increases. Our mentorship programme includes the GirlCoder Club, which is a nationwide network of volunteer-led, weekend coding clubs for high-school girls. (It is open to boys, but primarily focused on girls.) It has exposed some of the mentees to opportunities that they never knew existed. We have seen a rise in our girls participating in more ‘technical’ roles within the ICT space.

Q: There are also opportunities in the so-called ‘femtech’ space. What are you seeing there?
A: Yes. As I mentioned earlier, femtech is the growth market of the future. This sector includes fertility solutions, period-tracking apps, pregnancy and healthcare, women’s sexual well-being and reproductive-system healthcare. Do we really want to leave these areas to men?

Women are the most profitable target group for tech companies. In multi-person households, it is women who currently make 80% of purchasing decisions. We believe all technical products and processes should be checked for their attractiveness to female users before they go to market. It’s even better if they were actually developed by women.

Q: GirlCode is aiming to teach 10 million girls to code over the next decade. Is that target too ambitious?
A: We have set a very audacious goal for ourselves, and we do intend on reaching it.

The first thing we have done to help us to reach this goal is to pivot our programmes to being virtual. This has helped us reach girls in all nine provinces simultaneously. The next step is for us to scale our virtual programmes and increase the streams we are currently offering.

Q: What are the most important programming skills that you focus on developing?
A: In GirlCoder Club, primary-school students learn MIT Scratch, which teaches them how to programme their own interactive stories, games and animations. Our high-school students learn html and CSS, which are the basics of web development. They then advance to Javascript and Python programming.

Our online bootcamps are about preparing women with little or no prior experience for work-readiness as web developers. We use a training model that mimics the process of learning on the job, where the ‘facilitators’ act as senior colleagues. There the tasks are designed to teach participants the practical skills needed to develop their programming ability, so the primary focus is on Python and AWS. These skills are currently in high demand in the industry, and given SA’s very steep unemployment rate, we want to make sure that our GirlCoders are afforded the best opportunities to increase their levels of employability.

Q: What are the plans for this year’s GirlCode Hackathon?
A: We had originally planned to roll out our annual GirlCode Hackathon in 10 African countries this year, but we’ve had to postpone that due to various logistical barriers. We’ll revisit the idea in 2023. This year our hackathon will be hosted in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Its theme is Generation Equality: Realising Women’s Rights for an Equal Future. This year’s main prize includes a cash prize of R60 000, and we are excited to host more than 400 girls across these three cities.

By Mark van Dijk