From the 25th of October to the 1st of November, 2017, I attended “Les Universités d’Afrique et de la Diaspora (UAD)”, which in English translates to Universities of Africa and the Diaspora. The UAD is an international forum that gives professionals from diverse horizons the opportunity to meet and discuss current issues. This forum also offers a training space on advanced methods and technologies. After the 3rd edition held in Paris in 2016, UAD 2017 was held in Douala, Cameroon.
The main themes discussed at UAD 2017 included Cyber Security, Big Data, Startups, Mobile Money and Female Entrepreneurship. As I work in the field, Big Data was of particular interest to me but at this conference, I was asked to give a few thoughts on Female Entrepreneurship. A challenge I gladly took on as the advancement of women in all areas of life is something near and dear to my heart. I am after all a woman.
The following write-up encompasses some of my thoughts on the matter of women and technology in general and female entrepreneurship in particular.
We are in the information age. According to Wikipedia, this is a period in human history characterized by a shift from traditional industry, that the Industrial Revolution brought through industrialization, to an economy based on information computerization.
According to the US Department of Labour, by 2020, 1.4 million job openings in the US alone will be computing related. This is where the world is moving. YET as of 2012, black women made up only 3% of the computing workforce. Those statistics being specific to the US, let’s bring this closer to home.
According to “ Women and the Web: Bridging the Internet Gap and Creating New Global Opportunities in Low and Middle Income Countries,” a white paper published by the Intel Corporation in 2012, only 1 in 9 women in Africa have access to the Internet. According to the same source, in developing markets, 25% fewer women than men are connected to the Internet. In Sub-Saharan Africa, this gap increases to 43%.
Not being online and not being able to take advantage of being online means many women are being left behind in the current information age. Hence the ‘Digital Divide’.
The term ‘Digital Divide’ was coined in the 1990s as a way to describe the disparities in Internet and computer access among the US population. As more people, especially those with better socio-economic status and living in urban areas, started to have Internet connectivity in their homes, schools and libraries, disparities started to quickly emerge within the population. The ‘divide’ described the unevenness of technology access, the split between the “haves” and the “have-nots”.
Beyond the binary classification of ‘have-computer’ vs ‘have-no-computer’, other dimensions emerged. Researchers transitioned to analyzing other dimensions of access such as skills and competencies, motivations, usage patterns, trying to understand how the internet was being used in more advantageous or disadvantageous ways by different sections of the population. Studies found that there are gradients not only in access to technology but also in the sociocultural practises and skills that people develop, the information they consume and produce and the outcomes of their usage.
Instead of one digital divide, researchers have identified multiple ones.
The first level has to do with access to material technology.
The second level indicates the gap in terms of online skills and practises.
The third consists in the differential tangible outcomes that come from our technology usage.
So, why, in this age of ubiquitous access to information and technology, are women, and black women in particular, and African women to be even more specific, being left behind? Why are we constantly being bypassed as leaders in the innovation economy?
In some cases it is systemic. I will give an example of something that happens in Kenya. Most high schools are segregated, there are some exclusively for girls and those for boys. At the end of 4 years of high school, there is a national exam sat by all students. Some subjects are compulsory, like Math, English and Kiswahili, just to name a few. Then there are other subjects that are optional. Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Geography, etc. Now, because these subjects are optional at the national examination level, schools also have the liberty to either offer them or not. So individuals need to know that by going to a certain school that does not offer certain subjects, they are forfeiting the chance to study certain courses at university level.
Perpetuating the gross fallacy that girls are incapable of performing well in technical subjects, it is often the case that girls’ schools will NOT offer Physics. Possibly a stunt to boost the overall performance of the school by offering the subjects that “girls are supposed to be good at.” This may seem trivial at high school stage but at the next stage, when it comes to selecting courses to study at university, these students are not eligible to study any technical or engineering courses which all have Physics as a prerequisite. The very fields in which we keep lamenting that the ratio of women to men is deplorable.
By the time we get to the university, it is too late.
In other cases, it is perception, a lack of representation. In a survey done by TechHer, a community of learning, support and collaboration for women working in technology, it was found that 69% of girls do not know what a technology career entails. When they think of computers, they think “boys and their toys”, and imagine that is no place for them. Yet there is a whole world of opportunities within technology. You could be a network architect, a support specialist, a database administrator, a systems administrator, a security analyst, a software developer, a designer, a project manager, you could be an entrepreneur who leverages technology to amplify your business.
Young girls do not see enough people that look like them in these spaces. Other women, other black women, other African women. At the UAD, I remember being taken aside by one of the participants who wanted to understand how I had become the way I am, referring to the fact that I work in tech. He had a notebook out and wanted to know everything because he had a little sister and wanted to influence her to follow the same path. He pointed to the fact that the women his little sister idolizes are musicians and actresses and hardly the scientists, researchers, engineers and mathematicians. These other roles being popularly portrayed as a playground for men.
To the women reading this, we need to, as individuals, REALLY get online. They say “If you do not read, you are no different from someone who cannot read”. If you are getting on the Internet and only consuming, you are no different from someone in a remote village somewhere with no access to technology. This year find an online course that will further your skill, find a community of individuals in your field, meet and share information regularly, network. If you write poetry, share it, start building an audience. If you wash clothes for a living, get on Facebook and use it to advertise your services and look for customers. Whatever it is you do, find a way to amplify it by REALLY GETTING ONLINE. Build. Create. Amplify.
Still to the women, be on the lookout for opportunities online and share them with your female networks. Besides ensuring that you as an individual are plugged in, are the women nearest and dearest to you plugged in as well? Extra points if you can identify or even create an avenue via which other women can learn about and access these opportunities.
Kimberly Bryant, an electrical engineer who had worked in biotech for over 20 years, founded Black Girls Code in 2011 in hopes of rectifying the underrepresentation of the female and African-American demographic in the technology industry. The organization offers programs in computer programming, coding, as well as website, robot, and mobile application-building, with the goal of providing African-American youth with the skills to occupy some of the 1.4 million computing job openings expected to be available in the U.S. in 2020.
Chioma Chuka, founder of TechHer, a community of women passionate about technology wants Nigerian women to be technology-literate and explore diverse opportunities in information and communication technology(ICT). When she started TechHer in August 2015, more than anything she was interested in some sort of convergence point for women working in, around or with technology. In the same way that the ‘boys club’ exists and men grab drinks after work and that’s where the proverbial big decisions are made, she wanted a community where women would feel safe to ask anything, say anything, and feel confident to be (or at least dream of being) anything.
My 21-year-old twin cousins, Paulyne and Sophia, began a mentorship programme simply because they wanted to make a change. They realised how privileged they were to be enlightened by all they learnt in school and that most girls their age in their hometown, Bungoma, Kenya, were not as lucky. Things that seemed ‘basic’ to Paulyne and Sophia were unknown to most of the girls, the repercussions of which bore heavy consequences such as early pregnancies. Their intention is to periodically take a number of girls from different schools and have them go through a short mentorship programme, after which they are to go back to their respective schools and mentor their fellow schoolmates.
What is my point?
I am a firm believer in the notion that we must be the ones to ‘save’ ourselves and once there, ‘look back’ from whence we came and offer a hand to those we can.