Beyond Beijing 1995: What are the Gains, Losses and Strategies for improving Women’s Visibility
Hosted by Uganda Media Women’s Association 24th March 2023 at the Imperial Royale Hotel in Kampala, Uganda
The Minister of State for Gender, Labour, and Social Development, UN Resident Coordinator,
Excellencies, Members of the UMWA Board, Executive Director, Distinguished ladies and
gentlemen, Good afternoon to you all.
My address today is entitled, “Beyond Beijing 1995: What are the Gains, Losses and Strategies
for improving Women’s Visibility”. For some of you here today, the 1995 World Women’s
Conference in Beijing seems like a long time ago. After all, it was 28 years ago. However, I still
remember that watershed moment as though it was yesterday.
I was privileged to attend the Beijing Conference in 1995. I was a 20-something undergraduate
university mass communication student and I got sponsored to attend the Conference where I
worked as an Intern at Feminist International Radio Endeavor (FIRE). FIRE was based in
Costa Rica and was set up by journalist, Maria Suarez Toro and a group of international
women. It was one of the first Internet radio stations owned by women for women. The radio
promoted women’s human rights and diversity in the media and Internet space that at the time,
was largely dominated by men. Maria Suarez was a heroine to my younger self. As I worked
alongside her during the Beijing Conference, sitting in as she interviewed so many women
activists from all over the world, and broadcasting the vibrancy of the world conference to a
global audience, I understood for the first time, the power of media and technology when
women own it. FIRE set the agenda; they provided a platform for an alternative female voice
from the Global South to be heard, competing with male viewpoint in many western media that
was covering the conference.
The Beijing Platform for Action, the outcome document from the 1995 Women’s Conference
dedicated Section J to Women and the Media. In my address today, I want to focus on ‘women
in decision-making in digital technology and innovation’, linking my analysis to strategic
objective J.1 of the Beijing Platform for action, and this year’s theme for International Women’s
Day 2023, “DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality”. The center of media
power today has moved away from traditional mass media to new media/digital media including
social media. This shift is being driven not just by advances in internet technology and
innovation but by demographics. By 2020, there were more than 233 million subscribers of
Facebook in Africa
1. More young people – Generation X and millennials, get their news updates
from TikTok and Instagram than from traditional news outlets, leading to more democratization
of content and by extension, entrepreneurship.
Why should women be owners and decision makers in digital technology and innovation? A
2022 UN report noted that excluding women from the digital world has led to a $1 trillion loss
from the gross domestic product of low and middle income countries in the past 10 years2.
Bringing women into technology results in more creative solutions, promotes innovations that
meet women’s needs and promotes gender equality. The EU found that having more women in
the digital sector could create an annual increase in the EU’s GDP of Euro 16 billion3. Women’s
equal leadership in technology and innovation ensures that tech companies create better and
safer products based on needs of both women and men.
My focus today will be on the gains women have made in areas that we seldom highlight –
these are tech, social media, gaming and animation. These are multi-million dollar sectors
driving visibility, consumer entertainment and livelihoods today. Like Maria Suarez of FIRE that
I talked about earlier, there are now more African women as owners, female executives, board
members, developers and content creators in digital technology and innovation spaces. Many
of them have received millions of dollars in venture capital for their innovations.
Let me highlight a few of these African women that have made waves in the digital innovation
and technology spaces.
Sarah Menker (Ethiopia), Co-Founder & CEO, Gro Intelligence
Gro Intelligence is an Ethiopia based start up that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to forecast global agricultural trends and battle food insecurity. In January 2021, Gro Intelligence closed a $85 million Series B round.
Oyindamola Honey Ogundeyi (Nigeria), Founder & CEO, Edukoya
Edukoya is the largest online learning platform for Africans. In December 2021, Edukoya raised $3.5million which is the largest pre-seed round for an African EdTech platform.
Kofo Akinkugbe (Nigeria) Founder & CEO, SecureID
Africa’s leading manufacturer of smart cards and other identity documents. Her group of companies owns Nigeria’s first SIM card production plant which has been in operation since December 2016. Certified by Visa, Verve, and Mastercard, the company exports SIM cards to 21 other African countries.
Shamim Nabuuma Kaliisa (Uganda) Founder, Chil Artificial Intelligence Lab
Chil AI Lab, a Femtech startup that leverages AI to improve access to reproductive health cancer diagnosis. Through Keti, its mobile app, women could consult with oncology experts and have samples collected and sent to laboratories. Thereafter, they get a diagnosis and a piece of medical advice.
Kaliisa is one of Africa’s young global leaders, sitting as a director on several boards. Her startup has raised about $4 million in five funding rounds and makes hundreds of thousands of
Neema Iyer (Uganda) Founder & Director Pollicy.
Neema Iyer is a technopreneur and fine artist who is the Founder and Director of Pollicy, a feminist collective of technologists, data scientists, and creatives.
Through Pollicy, Iyer is influencing the Ugandan digital development sector via an innovative lens on the intersection of data, technology, and design to improve government service delivery. Iyer got appointed to the Global Women’s Safety Advisory Board at Facebook.
Women entrepreneurs, who include these ICT technology and innovation start-ups mentioned previously, make up 27% of entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa, which is the highest rate in the world. Among these, Uganda with 34.8% and Botswana with 34.6% had the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs globally according to the 2017 MasterCard Index of Women Entrepreneurs. Although less than 5% of $12.6 billion in funding to Africa’s tech start-ups went to all women founding teams, Africa has double the number of fin-tech firms founded by women at 3.2% compared to the global average of 1.6%. Africa also has more female board members in fin-tech firms than other regions. Female board membership in Africa ranks first at 14.4% compared to other regions. Evidence shows that companies with women CEOs have more gender diverse boards. In turn, such companies with women in decision making experience more innovation, inclusivity and stronger financial performance.
African women have also found success in the digital space as content creators. The Covid-19 pandemic shifted more people onto online platforms in search of content that Africans can relate to. Tech and media giants like YouTube ad Netflix, are all investing heavily into Asia and Africa’s content and internet infrastructure as they seek to harness the potential billions of users in the emerging markets following the slowed growth in Western countries. In East Africa, comedians like Anne Kansiime from Uganda and Elsa Majimbo from Kenya have built up a massive loyal following in Africa and globally with their relatable local content. Other female content creators like Ghanaians Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah and Malaka Grant’s widely popular blog, “The Adventures From the Bedrooms of African Women”, has provided a platform for African women to share their experiences of sex, sexuality and pleasure. In the process, the blog has challenged African dominant narratives about gender stereotypes with respect to the subject of sex. In 2023, their podcast by the same name won a silver award in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Podcast or Audio Awareness and Media category at the Anthem Awards.
Gaming and animation are other digital content areas worth taking note of given Africa’s high youth population. The global gaming industry is expected to be worth over $300 billion in 20234, while the global animation market is about $391 billion5. While women make up half of gamers, only 24% of game developers are women while 71% are men. Furthermore, black game developers make up only 2% of this global figure. In Africa, the number of gamers reached 186 million people with South Africa having the highest number of gamers at 40%. Women like the Kenyan artists behind the game Kawia’s Adventure are breaking into this market to represent the stories of Africa, and in the process bringing diversity and inclusion into the gaming industry. Film producer, Vanessa Sinden, the producer behind popular animation, Khumba, which is one of the highest grossing movies in South Africa, founded African Women in Animation to promote mentorship, collaboration and offer a platform for empowering women in the animation, film and gaming industries.
I have focused intentionally more on the gains that women have made over the past two decades because I feel like we often don’t celebrate how far we’ve come as women. However, there are still challenges that limit women’s substantive representation in decision making in digital technology and innovation.
- Restrictive and contradicting government policies – In 2018, Uganda lost 30% of
Internet users after it introduced the social media tax. Both Kenya and Tanzania have
introduced taxes and fees directed at the digital sector that has negatively impacted
content creators and tech businesses. The 2021 ban on Facebook by the Uganda
government has locked out hundreds of thousands of potential revenue for young
entrepreneurs who access their clients through these digital market places. These
restrictive policies are a roadblock to the government’s role in solving the youth
unemployment crisis on the continent. They also contradict progressive international
and regional policies that promote women in decision-making in technology and
innovation like Beijing Platform for Action, the African Union Agenda 2063 and The AU
Gender Strategy 2018 – 2028. On the other hand, governments that have a more
liberal approach to digital media and technology have harnessed it for their benefit. For
example, Ghana’s tourism initiative “Year of Return” targeting diaspora to return home
brought over $1.6 billion into the economy with its global success largely driven by
digital marketing including using social media influencer marketing. Other African
countries have plans to use this strategy for their tourism campaigns.
- ‘The usual suspect’ syndrome – A Deloitte study of women in the board room found
that companies tended to keep hiring the same women or ‘usual suspects’ onto
company boards even when quotas are introduced. This practice locks out young
women, and other ‘lesser known’ women from getting a seat at the table even when
they deserve the seat. This means that boards continue to be less diverse with lower
numbers of women.
- Limited funding – I pointed out earlier that less than 5% of venture funding goes to
women-led tech start up companies. This is despite the fact that women-led start ups,
as well as those with female boards bring more returns per dollar invested than their
male counterparts. The global venture capital sector is also largely white and male.
- Gender digital divide – Fewer women have access to digital technology or skills
training than men especially in the developing countries. For example, the proportion
of women in STEM-related occupations is only 15%. Women therefore have enormous
barriers to becoming owners, decision-makers and content creators in the digital
space. The rural-urban divide is also a reality when it comes to accessing the Internet
not only in Africa but in some developed countries. Women in rural areas are left out of
meaningful online conversations.
- Gender based violence – Online violence and sexual harassment are some of the
forms of GBV limiting women’s participation as users and decision-makers in digital
technology and innovation.
- Gender stereotypes and socio-cultural expectations – Gender-blind hiring strategies
that most companies use lock out women from leadership positions. Changing the
hiring criteria to a skills-first approach instead of the traditional criteria of past experience was found by a LinkedIn study to increase the proportion of women in the talent pool to 24%. Gender biases by funders affects the ability to access finance by women owners in digital technology and innovation. Like previously mentioned, more than 80% of venture capital is in the hands of white men. Women are more likely to be in traditionally female roles and juggle both work and family responsibilities which make them less likely to promoted on the leadership ranks.
Strategies for improving women’s visibility in decision-making in digital technology and
innovation are (and this is by no means an exhaustive list).
- Implementing policies – We have largely enabling international, regional and national
policies promoting women’s participation in decision-making in digital media,
technology and innovation. For example, Kenya’s Constitution has a quota to ensure
that no one gender occupies more than one-third positions in leadership of public and
private entities. However, this Constitutional provision is yet to be implemented. Pillar 4
of the AU Gender Strategy 2018 – 2028 calls for members states to focus on
leadership, voice and visibility recognizing that women need to be equally represented
in all areas of decision-making and to participate with impact through the removal of all
forms of barriers.
- Make gender diversity a leadership priority – All companies and other stakeholders in
the digital space should make gender diversity a priority for its leadership and board.
This should include establishing company gender strategies with clear targets for
developing women leadership; conducting gender bias training for all staff; setting
gender diversity as a management performance criteria; corporate governance codes
should have quotas for women representation on boards; and publishing gender
disaggregated data on their staff and board. These are capabilities that Jabali
Consulting supports our clients with – both in the private and public sectors. MTN is an
example of a digital tech/ICT company whose leadership is committed to
institutionalizing women leadership at board, management and staff levels. In October
2022, MTN Uganda appointed a female CEO for the first time.
- Increasing women in STEM – there are already good practices across the globe
including providing grants, using female role models and mentors, providing
scholarships, etc. However, this should not be to the detriment of the supporting
creative arts that has its place in the digital space, as I’ve pointed out previously with
the important contribution of content creators.
- Addressing GBV – whether its offline or online, GBV limits women’s full participation in
digital technology and innovation, particularly as decision-makers, owners and
creators. The intersection of violence and mental health on digital platforms especially
for young women and girls is also a crucial issue that also needs to be addressed.
Digital human rights need to be upheld so as to ensure a safe Internet where there is
zero tolerance to OGBV, freedom of expression is upheld, there is data protection and
- Increasing funding for women owned businesses – more funding needs to be directed
to women-led and women-owned digital technology and innovation businesses. Some
UN and private sector entities have already established funding and capacity building
to women digital entrepreneurs.
- Support feminist research – on gender disaggregated data that will inform progressive
digital policies in private and public sectors for example on women’s access and use of
technology, finance, health, AI, and so on.
In conclusion, we need to challenge the narrative that women are only consumers and not owners of digital technology. Women’s visibility is more than having access to technology or gender representation. For women to be truly visible, we need to be owners, decision- makers and creators in the digital spaces that are the next frontier of story telling, agenda setting, entertainment, and life as we know it.
Thank you ladies and gentlemen.