Technology lifts status for many African women


For the last decade, cultural issues as well as a lack of information, capital and opportunity have been advanced as reasons why there are few women in technology-related businesses in Africa, but trends are slowly changing.

The emergence of mobile money services led by the growth of GSM networks has allowed many women to work from their homes or trading centers, helping them avoid travelling long distances for business.

The growth of mobile phone service companies has led to more demand for engineers, growth of engineering services companies such as telecom mast construction and the expansion of fiber optic cable networks. All this has provided more opportunity.

While there has been some activism on women's issues, it's mainly the increasing availability of jobs that pay relatively well and career talks in schools that have helped many women to explore opportunities in technology.

"The girls need to have more information on careers and they can choose science subjects that will allow them to take technology related courses at the university; previously girls would concentrate on arts subjects, which limits their choices at the university," said Gladys Muhunyo, a member of Linux Chix Kenya.

Microsoft has been involved in a program training teachers and female students to appreciate technology, provide a pool of role models, and demonstrate opportunities available within technology companies.

"There has been a deliberate effort by the women who work at Microsoft through various efforts to work with girls; to not only sensitize them, but to offer mentorship opportunities and help guide them in into technology careers," said Mark Matunga, corporate social responsibility manager for Microsoft, East and Southern Africa.

While many companies may have taken responsibility for ensuring that more women enter the field of technology, the challenges of running tech companies are gender-neutral and performance is the key, forcing women to work as hard as men do.

Technological assignments defy gender -- both men and women are rated according to their proficiency and where gender discrimination is discouraged, women appear to do even better, said Lucy Mumbi Kairu, a member of the Business Support IT and Networking team at Telkom Kenya.

In many African countries, banks have developed financing schemes targeting women but availability of opportunities that allow women to exploit their potential seems to be an even bigger issue, given some of the cultural obstacles that have hindered women's advancement in tech.

In traditional African societies, women often were not expected to engage in businesses that involve travel or long hours. It was expected that women stayed home to take care of families. Those who defied the norm were labelled as elitist and in many never got married.

This restricted the number of women who joined technical courses and even for those who did, a limited number got jobs involving systems management or any job involving overnight work.

The challenge of balancing career and family exists for many women but the emergence of opportunities in tech have allowed the society to be more understanding.

"Balancing family with one's career is quite difficult; the telecommunication environment means that one needs to be on standby for any eventualities such as servers crashing and going through a systems migration. Sometimes this means working 24 hours," added Telkom's Kairu. "That is why most women will take time off to have children, go back to school for less demanding courses then come back but by then their careers have lagged behind or are sometimes overlooked when it comes to promotions."

The idea that women have to take time to get families and the unavailability to work long hours has entrenched discrimination in some companies although it is not as pronounced as before.

"One major obstacle that women face in the ICT sector is the general lack of recognition and confidence in their skills, which means that they lose out on numerous opportunities for growth," said Mwende Njiraini, a telecommunications engineer with the Communications Commission of Kenya.

"Mobile has proved to be a key element in today's society as it is the most ubiquitous, connected and personalized communications tool that we have, and holds significant potential in bringing the benefits of connectivity to most of the developing world and reaching families at the bottom of the economic pyramid," said Rob Conway, CEO and member of the board at the GSMA trade association, during the launch.