Number of women at the helm of tech firms up

With her petite frame perched in a chair within a vast boardroom in one of Nairobi’s most prestigious business addresses, Isis Nyong’o looks an unlikely candidate for the title of vice-president and managing director of Africa for InMobi.

With one leg tucked under her as she twirls a pen, it would appear that the 34-year-old, who has been chosen to run the African operations of the world’s second-largest mobile advertising firm, has finally broached the mythical glass ceiling.

She disagrees: “There have definitely been several advances, but for many of us in the industry there are too few of us women in leadership positions in African ICT.”

Rising profile

On a shaky telephone connection from her offices at Google’s South African headquarters, Ms Nyong’o’s former workmate, Ms Ory Okolloh, agrees.

“There are still very few of us in the industry. I still look around at major conferences and see very few women, there are very few corporate heads of ICT firms in Africa,” said Ms Okolloh, the policy manager for Africa.

However, in Ms Nyong’o and Ms Okolloh’s recent appointments at Google and InMobi, analysts see the beginnings of a new trend that is seeing young educated Kenyan women take on roles with large responsibilities for large multinationals.

In a growing number of multinationals, Kenyan women are taking up top positions in a global reversal of trends that have seen the number of females in top positions at such firms slow down.

From Betty Mwangi-Thuo, Safaricom’s head of finance, to Catherine Ngahu, Chairwoman of the ICT Board of Kenya to Mwende Gatabaki, the Division Chief of African Development Bank’s IT operations based in Tunisia; the number of women in high-profile positions in the ICT sector has grown exponentially over the last ten years.

“Ten years ago, there were very few, if any, women in comparable positions,” said Ms Nyong’o.

Njeri Rionge, then the Managing Director of Wananchi Online, was among the very few women who made it to the executive suites of major ICT firms in 2000.

Human resource analysts attribute the trend to the fact that the country’s rising profile as a technology hub as well as a trend that has seen a growing number of women willing to take on the more stressful and yet financially rewarding challenges of the technology sector have combined to make workers in the sector appealing to both local and international firms.

David Muturi, Executive Director of the Kenya Institute of Management said a growing number of Kenyan employees view a career in the fast growing telecommunications industry as being among the most appealing in the local market.

In addition, several companies seeking to balance the gender equation in their executive suites are actively seeking out qualified women in the field.

However, human resource experts contend that there is still a long way to go before the country can meet global figures which have seen over 10 per cent of the workforce in top management.

According to the recently released Women in IT survey by the Center For Women & Technology, Kenya is no different from many other countries in the world, where women hold just 10 per cent of corporate offices in the ICT industry.

Women make up under 10 per cent of board of directors of the Fortune 500 technology companies in the US, and an American industry survey found that the odds of being in a high-level position are 2.7 times greater for men than for women in the ICT sector.

In a study of Silicon-Valley technology startups, women accounted for only 4 percent of senior management positions in technical and research and development departments.

Trained specialists

It is telling that apart from Ms Gatabaki - who is a trained computer science graduate - none of the over 15 women in high-powered positions at both Kenyan and international firms are trained ICT specialists.

Many of women climbing the corporate ladder at technology firms are lawyers, marketers and business graduates, who have honed their skills to work within the high growth ICT sector.

Global statistics reveal that on average, the odds are slightly better for women who are not technical specialists, as they account for 14 per cent of senior management when including non-technical specialisations.

Conversely, women make up just 9 per cent of IT Management Positions.

Analysts say the glass ceiling can often appear higher for women in the technology field, where the male-dominated profession favours individuals who are able to work around the clock like the technologies they produce.