Representation, participation, inclusion, and equality of women and girls in the ICT sector continue to become a huge challenge to overcome. Gender biases perpetuate perceived realities and thus limit interest and exposure in the industry. A report by UNESCO, called ‘Cracking the Code: Girls’ and Women’s education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)’, indicates that only 35 percent of STEM students in higher education globally are women. Surely more can be done, right?

As we are about to wrap up our Youth Month series, profiling young women who have done exceptionally well in their spaces of influence, I spoke to Tinyiko Simbine who runs an organisation called GirlCode, aimed at developing and delivering skills training in the software development industry, to young girls. Here’s how the conversation went…

Q. This past year has taken a toll on so many of us. Before we delve into this conversation, how are you feeling?

Mentally, I’m good although I must admit, I could be better. The Covid situation isn’t the easiest to deal with. Spiritually, I feel blessed. But overall, I am in good health. Thank you for asking.

Q. We’ve come to know you through the amazing work you’ve done in exposing the world of coding to young girls. Tell us about the Tinyiko most people don’t know about.

Wow! I seldom get asked this. I studied Accounting Sciences. I have always had a passion for helping others and was involved in various initiatives that focused on doing so. My inspiration came from my need to always help people who were less fortunate than I was and when I got into the tech space, my passion was ignited when I noticed the gender gap within the ICT space through one of my best friends.

Q. As a young, black woman yourself, what do you see in the black girl child that is linked to why you chose to be in a space that aims to embrace, empower, and advance the agenda of exposing women to the world of tech?

Maths and Science were always considered subjects for boys. Historically, girls were raised to believe that their place was in the kitchen and to raise kids, they were conditioned to believe that they were not good enough for anything else, and as a result, they were never actually afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts. 

This matters so much to me because as a young woman, it is important to have role models who look just like you, to give you that extra push. When you have people who look like you, as role models, your ability to thrive and succeed increases.  Our vision as GirlCode is to create a network of women who are highly skilled in software development and leadership skills, who will contribute towards an inclusive and innovative technology industry. 

Q. The world is changing, and young people are exposed to a vast number of options, career-wise, however, STEM remains quite unpopular. In your observations, why is this?

There seems to be a disconnect between the information and the youth of South Africa. Young people are not properly exposed to all the wonderful opportunities that are out there for them to explore in the STEM field. That’s why organisations like GirlCode exist.

The use of digital skills has become part of our lives. Many activities are facilitated by and through the use of technology. Corporates need to give more South Africans access to these skills that they need not only to survive, but to thrive in this digitally advanced world that we are currently living in. 

Q. You were exposed to coding when you were 16 years old. What were your first impressions and at what point did you decide this was the path worth taking?

Funny enough I didn’t like coding much, so much that I even dropped I.T as a subject and took up Science instead. I didn’t give coding much of a chance at the time and had very little understanding of it and the possibilities it could bring. 

I decided that it was a path worth taking after realising how many opportunities were out there for young black girls, as well as when I realised how much potential there was amongst our youth.

Q. You mentioned earlier, how your passion was ignited when you noticed the gender gap within the ICT space. Can you take us through some of the challenges women face in ICT?

One of the biggest challenges is the lack of representation. Representation matters because girls need to see other girls succeeding in STEM so they can see that it truly is possible.

Another big challenge is having a sense of belonging once they make it into the STEM field. “Boys clubs” continue to exist in corporate. Unfortunately, such issues discourage women, as they struggle to find their place in the industry.

Q. How did the Girl Code partnership come about?

GirlCode started in 2014 when gender gap frustrations in the ICT sector were realised. It then grew into an organisation that not only hosts Hackathons to showcase female talent but into an organisation that provides females with the skills that they need to compete in this space.

Q. One of the many highlights your organisation had was the hackathon which received attention from international platforms. Can you tell us more about this?

In March 2019, we partnered with American Express in the UK and hosted a Hackathon, where eight of our girls were permanently employed. As we speak, these girls are currently working and are based in the UK. Some of them have never received the opportunity to travel abroad before. As GirlCode, we live for these moments. This is proof that the future is indeed female. 

Q. Often when we go through challenges – business and career – at that moment, we don’t see what that challenge can potentially bring out in us. What is that one challenge you look back on and you are glad you went through because of perhaps a quality you have developed through it?

Being an entrepreneur and a non-technical person, in a technical world, you learn with time and also learn how to fly. The one challenge I look back and am grateful for is being female in a male-dominated industry, as this added so much pressure in my professional life. On top of the pressure, I battled with imposter syndrome. 

I learnt to constantly challenge myself and upskill, ensuring that I don’t stop evolving in order to thrive in my chosen career. One of the amazing things about the tech space is that the possibilities are endless. I am also a firm believer that you need to be the change you want to see. So, I use my passion as a driving force in pursuing my dreams because not only do I get to do what I love but I also get to change lives while doing it and for me, there isn’t a better feeling than knowing that I contributed towards changing someone’s life, forever.

Q. As we wrap up youth month, what mantra do you swear by that you’d like to pass on to a young woman reading this?

You are enough! You can do anything you put your mind to! Your time is now!

And on that note, take these words from Mae Jemison, the first African American woman astronaut to travel into space, “don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world; it’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.”