Celine Bremaud, Sales, Marketing and Operations VP, Microsoft Middle East and Africa, spoke to Victor Onyeka-Ben on the company’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education programme. Excerpts:
What is the level of acceptance of STEM education in Africa? How has your programme impacted on women in the continent? Has enough been done by your organization to improve the situation on the ground in Africa?
It’s estimated that by 2020, 80 per cent of all jobs will require some sort of STEM qualification, but Africa is lagging behind the rest of world in terms of investments in STEM education and workforce development. Microsoft has a long history of supporting STEM education on the continent, with a particular focus on the “T” for technology and computer science education. Our work has primarily focused on closing the “digital divide” – helping students, educators, and young adults gain the basic digital literacy and learning skills required in today’s technology-driven world. When it comes to women, Microsoft also realizes that women of all ages are underrepresented in STEM fields. It’s a well-known fact that globally, only 14 per cent of the STEM workforce consists of females. Having more women enter the STEM workforce will in turn drive economic growth, equality and innovation. In fact, bringing 600 million additional women to the ICT sector can boost the GDP of developing countries by an estimated $13 billion. We therefore want to create a culture where more women are attracted to STEM and see themselves having a career path in the technology industry. With this in mind, Microsoft is actively empowering young girls on the continent to study STEM subjects at school and university and encouraging women to pursue careers in STEM fields. We have many programmes aimed at increasing participation of women in STEM fields across the continent. Our most recent programme is our annual #MakeWhat’sNext campaign in celebration of International Women’s Day. On an annual basis, Microsoft launches an awareness campaign globally and regionally to encourage young women to pursues careers in STEM with a particular focus on computer science. This year, the campaign covered 14 countries in the Middle East and Africa reaching over 23 million young women and parents. We also upskilled over 293, 600 young girls with the main goal of the campaign being to address the stereotypes and misconceptions that discourage women from pursuing careers in STEM. The campaign ran from International Women’s Day on March 8 and culminated on International Day for Girls in ICT which falls on April 26.
How have the programmes assisted in advancing the ideals of STEM, especially in bridging the gender gap, particularly in the region(s) that you cover?
Microsoft is involved in a wide range of programs aimed at attracting, recruiting, retaining, and developing women from around the world in the field of computer technology and STEM subjects. We have embarked on a variety of initiatives in the in MEA region to that effect. Here are some of our flagship programmes: Microsoft Digital Skills programme is a global program that seeks to ensure that all youth have the opportunity to learn digital skills and computer science through unique programs and partnerships with governments, business, and non-profit organizations such as Code.org. Under this initiative, we also sponsored a number of programs dedicated to empowering women such as: Technology for Social Change and Development Initiative: The Technology for Social Change and Development Initiative will partner with the Federal and State Ministries of Women Affairs across 12 states in Nigeria to establish the Nigerian Women Techmakers programme, an experiential learning programme aimed at building digital literacy, coding and analytical skills in young women. The Nigerian Women Techmakers programme will train 2,400 young women through a three-month programme that includes technical training, mentoring, hackathons and workshops. The African Centre for Women, Information & Communications Technology: The African Centre for Women, Information & Communications Technology creates opportunities for youth from poor and disadvantaged areas in Kenya to pursue careers in the technology industry. 9,000 young women are introduced to digital skills training, including introduction to computer systems, hardware and software components, computer applications, and programming and coding. Forum for African Women Educationalist: Microsoft has also supported FAWE since 2016 in 10 African countries to train youth, teachers and students to adopt and use STEM curricula, teaching and learning materials and classroom practices that are gender-responsive. This is conducted through at least 30 schools per country with each center reaching over 1,000 girls directly. In 2017, two teams per country presented their innovations at a Pan-African Innovation competition in Lusaka Zambia. Aspire Women” Aspire Women is an Egyptian initiative to help underserved women realize their career dreams, by breaking the barriers hampering their socio-economic development. The three-year program was designed to empower 25,000 young women in Egypt through access to technology. Leveraging our employees: Microsoft ran mentorship programs in Kenya and Egypt benefitting 600 young women with skills development and career enablement in technology and business. Cloud Startup Academy: Microsoft also launched the Cloud Startup Academy to help women entrepreneurs launch businesses with the help of cloud technology. Since launching the program, 22 new cloud-based startups have been created and 19 women have been placed in permanent jobs.
Are you willing to partner with NGOs in taking the program closer to women? Will you, for instance, have a working partnership with Africanewscircle.com or other NGOs known to it to take the STEM programme closer to women across Africa?
Microsoft does most of its philanthropic work on the continent either with or through nonprofits. We rely on our nonprofit partners to share learning and bring opportunities to the most underserved populations and we have multiple partners across the Middle East and Africa. We’ve mentioned a few of them above but we also work with many others across the region.
What do you think should be done to get more women involved in STEM education? Are you doing that already or have done anything in that direction?
At Microsoft, we believe diversity fosters greater innovation. With this belief in mind, we strive to be a leader in attracting women to careers in technology. We start early in the pipeline by sparking girls’ interest in technology careers. We promote the study of computer science at traditionally women’s colleges and other universities. We also invest in women-focused organizations, seek out women-owned suppliers, and provide support to women once they are employees at Microsoft. Understanding the need to invest in a future workforce that is diverse and inclusive, we’ve created specific programs around the development and hiring of diverse talent, including high school internship programs and college recruiting efforts such as YouthSpark, DigiGirlz and Explore Microsoft internships. Our annual #MakeWhatsNext initiative aims to increase the number of girls interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) careers by introducing them to lesser-known female inventors. We believe that by expanding these young girls’ imaginations by showing them what’s possible in STEM fields will attract more women to STEM fields.
How widespread or accessible, is your digital program to women in Africa? Can you give specific examples of where you have implemented the digital programme in Africa? Do you have plans of expanding the programme?
We have implemented programmes in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Senegal, Cote D ‘Ivoire, Ghana, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and Uganda. One example is DigiGirlz, a Microsoft YouthSpark programme that gives middle and high school girls’ opportunities to learn about careers in technology, connect with Microsoft employees, and participate in hands-on computer and technology workshops. In the last 4 years, Microsoft has hosted DigiGirlz Days in 7 countries and in 2018, events have been planned for 10 countries including Ivory Coast, Ghana, Ethiopia, Senegal, Tanzania, Botswana, Kenya, Zambia, and Uganda. As part of our YouthSpark cash grants, Microsoft has also partnered with the Zariah Elizabeth Foundation which empowers women through education. With support from Microsoft, 50,000 young women will receive digital skills training in the next year through a train-the-trainer program in UNESCO community centers. 2,000 teachers and trainers will receive training and support to effectively teach digital skills.
Is there anything that has been done differently that makes women in the Middle East earn more STEM degrees than their counterparts in the rest of the world.
According to the World Bank, 13 of the 15 countries with the lowest rate of female participation in the workforce are in the Arab world; however, the UAE is a notable exception. Diverse perspectives are vital to developing and scaling 21st-century technologies. Women in the UAE for example make up 66 percent of the public sector workforce, of which 30 percent are in leadership roles. The 27.5 per cent of women who make up the UAE cabinet all play key roles in supporting technology and innovation in the country. Here, women are not a stark minority in technology sector—they’re a part of all the major tech initiatives and, in many instances, leading them. We in the Africa region can learn many lessons from the region in terms of attracting more young girls to study STEM subjects and encouraging more women to pursue careers in STEM-related fields.