NEWS: Uniting Change-Makers
This news article was written by Nettalie Viljoen, and was originally published on News24’s website, on August 10th, 2021.
Lead by example: to act in a way that shows others how to act. So reads the definition of this idiom in the Merriam Webster dictionary. What is missing in this online entry, however, is a photograph of Prof Ulrike Rivett. Embodying this concept, Rivett is the change that an initiative focused on gender-equality would like to see happen in Africa’s digital future. The Gender-Just Digital Innovation in Africa (GeDIA) initiative was founded in 2019 thanks to financial support from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). It aims to create a network of support for women academics working in the fields of digital innovation, digital literacy and information and communication technologies for development, and to set the research agenda around the idea that women are central actors in these fields.
“GeDIA unites women change-makers and their male allies to ensure women can fully participate in the shaping of Africa’s digital futures. Our network members come from universities, NGOs (non-government organisations including Malala Fund, Asikana Network and Oxfam), social enterprises (CodeSpace) and business, and are based in Uganda, Zambia, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Sweden and the United Kingdom (UK),” reads the “About” section on the initiative’s website.
One of these change-makers is Rivett. Forming part of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Information Systems – a Department in the School of IT – her role is that of an academic: teaching and doing research. She is also the Deputy Dean responsible for Undergraduate Affairs in the Faculty of Commerce. But her involvement in the GeDIA initiative is based on her research and the work the university does in the iCOMMS research team. This unit is focused on understanding the use of systems and making them benefit society by engaging proactively with the government, municipalities, and rural communities.
“The School of IT and our research team became involved through a long-standing relationship with colleagues at the University of Sheffield in the UK. We have been working with the university for many years and the GCRF funding provided an opportunity to take our research work and the collaboration to the next level.”
Rivett says the realities women face vary greatly but, she says, there are some common themes that stand out. “What is imprinted on girls through culture plays a major role and it is important to recognise that we need to create change within the context of culture, country, environment and also choice.
“Part of the problem is also how we delineate what is science and what is not. For example, medicine is science but nursing is not. But nursing can be described as being at the interface of science and care,” she says.
History shows women have always been attracted to careers that have a link to the care element. Rivett says they see the same in the technology field. Women in the IT fields often work in environments that have a social impact or that are people-centred.
“This is very interesting in the context of the masculinist discourse that dominates the IT industry. There is opportunity to start with a gender-transformative approach in the sciences and that can and should be rooted in African feminism, so that we can focus on transforming the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematic) and, therefore, IT sector on the continent,” she adds.
Although the industry is still dominated by men, Rivett says there is hope.
“More and more women are entering the field of IT and its adjacent disciplines. But if you were to look at the management of most IT companies, you will find there are hardly any women in the C-levels and that is something that should change.”
However, the initiative focuses on more than just industry. It also looks at the subtle aspects of how women and diversity are reflected in the approach to design and engagement in the digital space.
“For example, how do we decide who our customers are when we design a new cellphone app? How do we design for women and with women and do we take into consideration that designs in digital spaces may work differently for different groups of people?”
While there is no arguing the good GeDIA has already done in these past two years, time is running out for the initiative. In October, the GCRF funding will come to an end.
“We are looking for funding and are very hopeful that we will be able to identify funding to take the initiative further. By having created a network, we can also rely on different strengths and I am of the firm belief that our work is addressing a need in our country but also on the continent,” concludes Rivett.