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Women in STEM: words of inspiration from three of Africa’s leading female tech experts

Web Foundation · February 10, 2017

Today, the UN International Day for Women and Girls in Science, aims to celebrate the critical contribution of women in science and technology. But we should not forget how great the digital gender gap still remains — millions of women are either offline, silenced by hostile online spaces, or falling behind in acquiring critical skills needed for STEM careers.

Our Women’s Rights Online research found that women in urban poor areas across the Global South are up to 50% less likely to have internet access.

But there is hope: we caught up with three women working to improve digital gender equality across Africa to find out how we can make sure technology improves women’s lives.

What are the challenges for women in the tech sector?

Clearly, more can be done to improve women and girls’ participation in STEM, and digital skills are key to unlocking many opportunities and shifting the traditional balance of power between genders. What do the experts think the next major challenge is to making more progress?

Getting women and girls access to equipment is a key priority for Dorothy Okello, Founder and Director of the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET). In some cases, there is simply a lack of basic IT infrastructure. Even when equipment does exist, women and girls often lack the resources to access it, she explains. She also worries that there is a shortage of relevant online content for women to engage with. Language, for example, can be a major barrier for women who do not have English language skills.

Tope Ogundipe, Chief Operating Officer at Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, and Rachel Sibande, Founder of mHub Malawi, both felt the biggest challenge comes from current gender norms and a lack of role models for girls — a theme touched upon by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka this week. Tope believes the lack of women in STEM is exacerbated by negative social norms including “stereotypes about the ‘un-technical’ minds of women, negative connotations of feminism (such as aggressiveness or lack of femininity) and what sectors are suitable for men and women.”

Rachel agrees and sees promising signs of a changing tide: “Society has created an impression that girls and women are not made for technology and science fields. There are few female role models in scientific subject areas, though we have now seen some growth in numbers of women taking up careers in science and technology.”

What are the opportunities for closing the gender gap?

Though bridging the gender gap isn’t easy, these women find plenty of reason for optimism and are dedicated to moving forward. We asked them: “If you had a world leader sitting next to you, what would you say needs to change tomorrow to close the gender gap in technology?”

They are unanimous on one top priority: girls must be given access to technology and opportunities to learn digital skills from a young age.

Digital skills should be part of the school curriculum to encourage budding ICT talents”, Tope said. And for Dorothy, that means governments must “invest in appropriate STEM education for young girls and boys in ways that allow them to be creative, to explore and to innovate.”

But access, skills and learning don’t stop at school or at the age of 18. Tope stresses that beyond the classroom, “Affordable broadband access especially for those in poor communities is also pertinent”. And Rachel stresses that in addition to affordable access at home, women must have “a platform…to attain digital skills at any age. Learning is a lifelong activity, there must not be barriers.”

And finally, once women and girls are online and have been armed with digital skills, Tope says “There is a need for relevant content and services that are easy to find, understand and use, and there has to be a framework to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens online as this would also be important in encouraging women and girls to fully participate.”

Who are the women leading this movement?
Meet the three women we interviewed, and learn more about the organisations they work for:

Dorothy Okello, @wougnet
Founder and Director of the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), Dorothy fights to address the gender divide in both use of ICTs and employment in the tech sector. She’s motivated by her technical background and passion to improve women and girls’ empowerment.

Tope Ogundipe@tope-ogundipe
Chief Operating Officer at Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, Tope believes “a little intervention can make a huge difference in the life of women and girls”. She leads capacity building programmes to give girls — many of whom have “never seen a computer or touched a mouse” — digital skills that can help them get jobs and start small businesses, opportunities that would have otherwise been out of reach.

Rachel Sibande@rachelsibande
Founder of mHub Malawi, the country’s first technology and innovation hub. The hub offers free membership to girls and has trained over 400 girls with digital skills, mobile application development and social entrepreneurship.

The Web Foundation is proud to count these women among the partners and allies of our Women’s Rights Online programme, and thank them for taking the time to speak to us about their views ahead of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science.

To keep up with our work on women’s rights online, follow them and @webfoundation on Twitter!

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