Bridging the Digital Divide in Ghana: Encouraging girls and women in ICT
Each year, the fourth Thursday in April is commemorated as the Girls in ICT Day. This day, instituted under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) backed by International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Member States in Plenipotentiary Resolution 70, is dedicated to creating a global environment that empowers and encourages young girls and young women to consider studies and career pathways in the growing field of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).
The day also recognises the critical role women and young girls play in ICT to serve as a reminder that women and young girls will become invaluable assets if included in ICT education and careers. This year, the theme for the commemoration is “Access and Safety.”
I write this article, as I usually do, to join the world to mark the day to promote the efforts and education of young girls in ICT fields, but more importantly, to highlight the achievements, inadequacies, and potential improvements in our efforts as a nation to creating an inclusive future for all. A future that recognises the fundamental role of both males and females in ICT as growth a pillar in our social economic transformational agenda.
In the past few years, government has made significant progress towards bridging the gender gap, in respect of access to and achievement in ICT education and tools. Flagship programmes such as the Ministry of Communication and Digitalisation’s Young Girls in ICT Programme have exposed, trained, and empowered thousands of young girls and young women in ICT tools and skills across the country.
The days of when ICT and other associated fields such as STEM (i.e., Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) were understood as masculine programmes reserved for boys and men are gradually fading out. The rise and mainstreaming of contemporary female role models in ICT such as the trailblazing Prof. Elsie Effah Kaufman, Ivy Barley, Lucy Quist, and Angela Kyerematen Jimoh is a strong indicator of our positive progression towards degendering ICT.
Despite these remarkable achievements, there remains still gender gaps in access to ICT education and tools for young girls, and access to high level opportunities for young women in some of the fastest-growing and high-paying jobs of the future. The consequence of such disparities, especially in a country and world undergoing rapid digitisation, is the reduction of young girls and women’s access to health information, economic advancement and professional opportunities.
We can avoid this reality by creating solutions that effectively address the educational, infrastructural, cultural, and financial barriers that impedes young girls and women from freely advancing in ICT career pathways. A recent study conducted by World Web Foundation, a global organisation specialized in digital analytics and internet use research concluded that interest in Mathematics, ICT and Science lessons remain the leading determinant of Female Students’ Choice in STEM programmes at tertiary level. The implication is that the pathway to increasing the interest of young girls and women in ICT should take account of critical investment into increasing ICT access at the pre-tertiary education level, as a foundation building block for future career choice in the field.
Available data at the Ministry of Education and the World Bank also suggest that, less than a quarter of pre-SHS students in Ghana have access to internet. The few schools with access to internet are, however, inequitably distributed in urban and affluent communities within Ghana’s cities; leaving a considerable internet access gap. Significant investment is therefore urgently needed to provide equal access to ICT at the basic level to inspire the love for ICT in the girl child.
Beyond infrastructure provision, biases embedded within education delivery also discourage young girls from developing interest in ICT fields. At the pre tertiary level of education, young girls and boys take integrated science and core mathematics courses roughly in equal numbers. However, the transition between high school and university amplifies a pervasive dropout rate regarding ICT career paths.
A plethora of empirical evidence have suggested that young girls’ achievements and interests in mathematics and science, the foundation of ICT, are shaped by the social beliefs and learning environment in which young girls live and grow. This has a wide implication for the role of teachers in turning around the negative narrative of high attrition rate in ICT as females climb the academic ladder, given the significant role teachers play in creating and maintaining the academic culture in a classroom setting. Young students require positive words of affirmation and encouragement in order to urge them to fulfil their potential. As consequence, particular attention should be afforded the girl child in basic mathematics and science subject areas to encourage them to pursue science in senior high, and subsequently ICT courses at the tertiary level education.
Another significant barrier that prevents young girls from acquiring ICT skills include the cultural factors that have been found to limit young girls’ interest in the science and math fields. Young girls are often exposed to the bias that ICT skills are for males, whereas the humanities are for females. This negative stereotyping affects young girls’ attitudes, ability, and ambition to explore and grow in the field. Parents, teachers, and the society at large therefore need to grow a new consciousness that inspires the girl child to believe that our society is ready for female scientists and innovators. We must endeavour to communicate the values and essence of ICT particularly to young girls, to excite them to get involved and hone their skills to create a more digitally inclusive society. At all costs, we must remove the negative stereotypes that lower young girls’ interest and self-efficacy in mathematics and science subject areas, leading inevitably to reduced aspirations in ICT careers over time.
While there remains a long way to go to creating the truly digitally inclusive society we envision, I am very optimistic about the possibility of this future given the level of investment and effort the government and its partners are committing to this cause. For the sake of our comprehensive economic prosperity, we must endeavour to leave no one behind – especially the girl child – as we create a modern digital world to underpin our economic transformation. And together, we can work diligently to create a safer society for the girl child where access to ICT knowledge and skills is degendered.
By Prince Hamid Armah, PhD
The writer is the Member of Parliament for Kwesimintsim, and Vice Chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Education. He was previously the Director-General of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NaCCA), a University Lecturer and an Education Consultant to The World Bank, UKAID, USAID and UN Education Commission funded projects in Ghana.