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Where are the women in African tech?

This article by Hilda Moraa Morara originally appeared on Venture Capital for Africa, a Burn Media publishing partner.

The clamour for innovation in the African society today is loud. In the era where there is a lot happening in ICT, innovation and entrepreneurship, why are there still very few women involved in these areas? Past research reports and workshops have openly addressed female participation issues and the need to build more capacity of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics); to give them a chance to contribute to the growth of the economy.

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According to an ongoing study conducted by iHub Research on ICT Hubs, it’s evident that there are still very few women in co-working spaces such as ICT Hubs/Labs developing innovative ideas or working on challenging science related projects. Even if the women are there, they take up the non-STEM jobs such as: sales and marketing, receptionist or administrator, etc.

Few ladies participating:

I recently, attended a USSD workshop by Weza Tele, where they called upon developers, technologists and other tech practitioners to be part of the workshop. It was disheartening to find that out of the 32 people who applied, only two women took part (one lady + me). Is it that the event was not well communicated or are women disinterested in learning practical knowledge on new technologies?

One of the ladies who attended the USSD workshop, in a practical session

Women often tend to shy away:

When it comes to issues of creative meet ups, entrepreneurship and pursuing science related subjects, women often tend to shy away. I remember when I was choosing the subject focus for my undergraduate, the majority of my female peers chose humanities (Business Administration, Philosophy etc) as their first choice. On the other hand, I did not think twice about choosing Information Technology. My passion for ICT, science and entrepreneurship, formed the foundation reason in choosing Information Technology as my course. Although my peers did not ever discriminate against me because of the choice of course I took, I still felt out of place as in the beginning we often met to share our experiences. Whenever it was my turn to talk about the exciting things I encountered during the week; as soon as I started talking about this new programming language I learnt or showed them a system I developed, the look on their faces reflected me as a geek and weirdo.

Gender gap in STEM:

The gender gap is not only seen in the tech field but also in science related opportunities such as STEM careers, scholarships, events and competitions. I believe the answer to increasing the number of women in STEM, is young women need to first change their mindsets to believe that they can be the change makers when it comes to STEM, entrepreneurship and innovation. They should clear the theory that males are the key, default players in these fields. There is also need for role models to come out strongly to inspire and motivate the younger women.

Where to find the women:

We need to stop asking why there so few women in STEM. It’s time to minimise having debates to discuss gender gaps in STEM, and on social barriers that continue to block women’s participation and progress in STEM. Instead, we should be seeking to find the women who are already successful in changing Africa. I believe this is where WMIAfrica (Women who Mentor & Innovate in Africa), comes in to fill the gaps. WMIAfrica is a new online network that aims to combine sharing of successful, innovative stories for women by women and mentoring for young women in STEM. The aim of the network is to create empowering stories, resources, and jobs by allowing successful women to share their experiences by inspiring and encouraging younger women to actively participate in STEM opportunities.

If you are a woman, willing to share your story and be an inspiration to other women then you need to get on the WMIAfrica map so that people can stop asking where you are. Creating awareness on women already doing great work in STEM and putting them together in one place enables them not to feel weird as they endeavor in their STEM field. The women can share their stories and be role models to other young women aspiring to walk the same pathway. How then, can we now assist, promote, recruit, and inspire other women – something that WMIAfrica aims to achieve for women in Africa. Development of a critical mass of STEM women in Africa is one of the pillars for the promotion of innovation, diversity, human capacity development that can contribute to inclusive growth and creation of wealth.

Few African STEM women facing challenges:

The retention rate of the few women who embark on STEM related disciplines is not encouraging as it is hindered by discrimination. The few African women in science, mathematics and engineering also face unique challenges (from subtle assumptions made by individuals to systemic difficulties imposed by institutions), that are likely to derail their careers at a much higher rate than their male counterparts. And the result is that all over the continent, there are still very few women scientists and engineers with even fewer in leadership positions to articulate the inclusion of women in the management of science and technology institutions.

Promotion of women in STEM:

The promotion of women in science and technology requires actions at all levels using different modalities including advocacy, enactment of appropriate policies and capacity building. There are also issues of strategy such as acquisition of skills for prospective market demands; capacity in teaching and research in new and emerging areas of science; advocacy; mentoring and the use of role models in the promotion of women in STEM. What can Africa do to meet the demands for quality science and engineering education and increase the number of women in science? These issues need to be discussed and strategies and actions developed to accelerate women’s access and participation in science and technology.

The truth is that there are women in Africa doing great stuff. I believe women could achieve more if they start telling the world what they are doing, network, and share resources and job opportunities to increase the quality of more women in STEM through avenues such as WMIAfrica.

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