Digital Champions Initiative EMPOWER track launches

South Africa commemorates Women’s Month in August as a tribute to the more than 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women. The Government of South Africa declared August Women’s Month and 9 August is celebrated annually as Women’s Day. (

This year, ESCALATOR celebrated Women’s Month by launching the EMPOWER track of the Digital Champions Initiative. To kick off, EMPOWER offered a series of events under the title “Finding your place in an increasingly digital world as a woman in Humanities or Social Sciences”. The events were open to women affiliated with South African research and academic institutes at all career stages and with any level of digital or technical experience.

The series aimed to show women in Humanities and Social Sciences why they need to become part of the tech conversation and the value of using technology and digital research methods, how they can learn and grow, and where they can get support. We specifically showcased communities that are dedicated to growing inclusivity and diversity in technology such as WanaData, RLadies, The Carpentries, and Youthmappers. Our speakers also included technology practitioners within diverse research fields such as education, anthropology, international relations studies, and psychology.

According to a report from 2018 published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) titled “BRIDGING THE DIGITAL GENDER DIVIDE INCLUDE, UPSKILL, INNOVATE” (2018), women are still far less likely to use technology. In the foreword, the authors say the following:

Today the digital transformation provides new avenues for the economic empowerment of women and can contribute to greater gender equality. The Internet, digital platforms, mobile phones and digital financial services offer “leapfrog” opportunities for all and can help bridge the divide by giving women the possibility to earn additional income, increase their employment opportunities, and access knowledge and general information. We need to seize this opportunity to foster greater gender equality in the labour market, boost economic growth and build a more inclusive, digital world.

And building a more inclusive digital world is precisely one of the big aims of the ESCALATOR programme. The Digital Champions Initiative, a flagship activity of ESCALATOR, is a six-track mentorship programme to support Humanities and Social Sciences researchers in their digital and computational journeys. The six tracks are all aimed at different audiences with the EMPOWER track specifically focussing on supporting women.

The EMPOWER track was launched on 5 August with presentations for the first session looking at “How Stories Breathe: A Digital Perspective”. During the event, our two speakers shared their own experiences with digital storytelling.

Adaugo Isaac currently leads Code for Africa’s WanaData women data science/storytelling network across seven African countries. WanaData is a Pan-African network of female data scientists, journalists and technologists working to change the digital landscape by producing and promoting data-driven projects while applying digital technologies in storytelling. Watch Ada’s talk “Women + Data: Changing Africa’s story” on YouTube or view her slides.

Dr. Candice Livingston is the Research coordinator on the Wellington Campus of the Faculty of Education at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. She’s also a researcher and lecturer. Candice’s talk focussed on how they are using digital storytelling as part of the curriculum to help students connect with content and learn digital storytelling as methodology. Watch Candice’s talk “Autobiographical learning for student engagement in digital storytelling” on YouTube or view her slides on Zenodo.

The second event took place on 12 August and we were fortunate to have two wonderful speakers who introduced the RLadies initiative and how researchers in Humanities and Social Sciences can grow their digital and computational skills.

On 19 August we looked at the importance of being part of a community when learning and growing digital and computational skills. Dr Angelique Trusler specifically shared more information about the international organisation, The Carpentries, which teaches foundational research data science skills to researchers across the globe. We’ve been running Carpentries workshops in South Africa since 2013 and have built up a community of instructors and learners. Angelique’s talk is available on YouTube as well.

Angelique’s talk was followed by Dr Caroll Hermann from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Zululand. Caroll is a member of the Carpentries community and as Psychology lecturer and researcher has been applying what she’s learned through the Carpentries in her classrooms and own research.

The final session took place on 26 August and this time we specifically looked at the importance of making sure women are involved in digital transformation. Laura Mugeha, Regional Ambassador for YouthMappers in Kenya, told us about the work that they do to empower women through programmes such as Everywhere She Maps and others. A recording of Laura’s talk, “Bridging the digital divide: Open learning, sharing and collaborating through tech and science communities”, is available online along with her slides.

In the second speaking slot, Dr Ingrid Brudvig, an independent digital anthropology consultant, helped us explore topics such as identity and belonging through her talk titled “Towards a Feminist Digital Ethnography: Navigating Identity, Belonging and In-Betweenness at the Frontier of Online and Offline Spaces”. Ingrid’s talk and slides are also available online.

The series was very well attended and participants contributed valuable comments and questions during and after the sessions. Organisations that were represented include the HSRC, UP, UCT, CPUT, SPU, UFH, UKZN, NWU, DUT, UWC, UNIZULU, UFS, TUT, WITS and more! We look forward to continuing the engagement with this growing community of women in Humanities and Social Sciences interested in the intersection of research and teaching and technology.

Anelda van der Walt
Anelda van der Walt
ESCALATOR Programme Manager