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5 minutes with… Mardia van der Walt-Korsten

Mardia van der Walt-Korsten is the managing director of T-Systems South Africa, the biggest ICT outsourcer in the country. She is the recipient of the Nedbank Businesswoman of the Year Award, the IT Web ICT Personality of the Year Award, and the SITA ICT Legend Award for her contribution to ICT Development.

What kind of impact are women having on the digital economy?
Women are having an increasing impact both locally and internationally. However, it is still a predominantly male area globally. No European Union member state has more than 1/3 women researchers in engineering and technology, while the average is 10%.

In the US, women make up 9% of mid- to upper-level IT engineers; 28,5% of computer programmers; 26,9% of systems analysts and 85% of data entry workers.

A 2006 report on women in technology in South Africa states that Bachelors’ degrees awarded to women in IT fields represent 25% of degrees in that field. Within our own organisation, I am one of few women in top management within the Deutsche Telekoms group, however at T-Systems South Africa, 3 of our 7 EXCO members are women. In addition, 42 of our 95 interns at T-Systems this year are women, which is a promising percentage.

How can we encourage more women to become involved in technology?
We need to acknowledge the value that women bring to any business. Research has found that flexibility and empathy are key strengths of women in business and especially in leadership roles; it has also found that women have strong interpersonal skills. In technology one needs to be flexible to keep up with the swift changes that occur in this space. Having the added benefit of empathy, women are uniquely positioned to read situations accurately and collect information from all sides. We are then able to create buy-in and collaboration because as women we make people feel they are understood, supported and valued. All these are aspects critical to ensuring a technology company stays ahead of the competition and the innovation curve.

What do you regard as the biggest obstacle to women moving into technology?
In an industry that is still historically dominated by men, women are often at the disadvantage of stereotypes. These stereotypes could include perceptions that women are not ‘technically inclined’, which is certainly far from true. In fact, in my experience, women demonstrate an inclusive, team-building style of problem solving and decision-making, easily tapping into the various skills and expertise of their counterparts, simply because there is no ‘ego’ involved. This style of interaction in the end is more conducive to an innovation-driven business, which is ideal in the technology space.

What about the number of entrepreneurial women involved in tech start-ups in South Africa?
Interest is growing, however it’s not at a very fast rate. There is very little published research on this particular angle, which tells its own tale in terms of how much attention is being paid to it.

What is the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Steve Booysen [former Absa CEO] told me one day that he believes you should do something from your ‘bucket list’ every year and not wait for the future. That is also how I handle my life – I don’t wait for the right time to do the things that are important to me, I do it.

* Mardia van der Walt-Korsten is one of the speakers who will address the Wired Women Conference on 14-15 September.

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