Main Menu

Barriers in way of women’s march to brave tech world 

By JACQUELINE KUBANIA
More by this Author

One of the most striking characters in the runaway success that is the Black Panther movie is Shuri, a 16-year-old technology expert responsible for developing Wakanda’s technology into devastating weaponry or highly sophisticated medical equipment.

Shuri, played brilliantly by the incredible Letitia Wright, is, quite simply, formidable. And she is indomitable in a field where too often, women are either muted, or entirely erased — technology.

If black women are now being cast as leads in tech-driven movies, it is only because society is finally sitting up and taking notice of their contributions to that sector.

The same nascent revolution is taking shape in Kenya today, and it is gathering momentum.

On a recent rainy weekend, some 200 women gathered at a Nairobi hotel for a forum called Women Techmakers, a platform that provides visibility, community and resources for women in technology.

The striking thing about this gathering was how young many of the participants were, some barely out of their teens, all of them tech enthusiasts chomping at the bit to drive innovation and participate meaningfully in an industry that for too long has been dominated by men.

Dorothy Ooko, a speaker at the forum, is a lover of technology. As the communications and public policy lead for Google Africa, she is in a unique position to understand both the intricacies and technicalities of working a tech job in Africa as a woman, and how the outward appearances of tech companies as primarily male facing affects their perception in the minds of consumers.

“There is a gap in technology that exists because women have not been given the opportunity to fill it. This is what Women Techmakers is trying to fix, exposing young girls and women to technology so that they can fill these roles and create a more equal environment in tech,” she said.

June Odongo, founder and chief executive officer at Senga, a logistics company that offers transport solutions, feels right at home within the tech ecosystem in Kenya.

LEAP OF FAITH

She studied computer science at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell before enrolling at Harvard Business School for an MBA. She has worked in technology in different capacities, including as a software engineer and in product development.

Moving back to Kenya in 2015 and setting up Senga Technologies was a leap of faith but one she was excited to take.

“I like coordination problems, I like connecting people to what they need, which is what Senga does with transport. We have partnered with independent transporters across the country whom we connect you to according to what you need to move, and where. We vet them to ensure that you receive the best service,” she said.

Her business model is simple. She set out to prove that the business was financially viable and sustainable before thinking about raising funds to execute it.

“We were bootstrapped and worked with a lean budget to first prove that it works and have managed to run it this way for almost two years. We are growing and are now approaching the stage where we could do with some investors,” said June.

But fundraising has always been one of the hardest things in the tech business. According to June, local investors rarely put their money in tech, opting instead for real estate. Some foreign funders, on the other hand, tend to be racist.

“The easiest way to get funded as a start up in Kenya today is to have a white co-founder. Foreign investors are more likely to give you money if they see a white person on board. And a lot of times, these white founders have no tech, corporate or business backgrounds, but end up running the show and ultimately bungling it,” she said.

Perhaps this is where Chao Mbogo comes in. The head of the Computer Science Department at Kenya Methodist University, Chao is also involved in a mentorship programme called Kamilimu, which seeks to raise the next generation of computer scientists and equip them with the skills they need to take their rightful place in Kenya’s growing tech scene.

RURAL POOR

“Kamilimu is taking what tech students learn in the classroom and complementing that with skills they do not learn in the classroom but are crucial to succeed, not only in the job market, but also the world, to produce globally competitive graduates,” she said.

There are those who have argued that because the people who develop technology innovations tend to be privileged, upwardly mobile young people living in urban areas, their innovations are often targeted at a similar demographic, leaving out the rural poor. Therefore making tech accessible to Kenya’s youth, and from various backgrounds, could also serve to make the tech space less urban and elitist by giving opportunities to those who are not in Nairobi. And this is already happening.

“A significant number of successful startups and innovators were first incubated, founded, or the founders met at tech hubs. And it is this culture of innovation that has seen a number of tech hubs launched outside Nairobi, for example, Swahili Pot in Mombasa and LakeHub in Kisumu. Mentors at LakeHub supported the ladies from Kisumu Girls who qualified for the Technovation international challenge last year,” said Chao.

Creating a more inclusive tech space in terms of gender and socio-economic demographics can only make the industry richer. All in all, Dorothy, June and Chao are optimistic about the future of technology in Kenya, and the place of women in it.

“The glass ceiling that exists is breakable. Even though women experience challenges in the tech industry and academia, we can  continually prove that we excel and lead in the tech field. Indeed, a lot of work still needs to be done to not only mentor women and girls in the field but also encourage interest in the tech field. We have seen remarkable progress in the rise in the number of female innovators, female-owned companies, female-led tech companies, and also female-centred programmes for women in tech,” said Chao.

RIGHTFUL SEAT AT THE TABLE

For June, it is time for local techpreneurs to take their rightful seat at the table.

“We local entrepreneurs will reclaim the story of Kenya’s tech sector. We need to move away from expat founders and run this show ourselves,” she said.

And according to Dorothy, a good way to do that would be to get more local investors to put their money in tech.

“More Kenyans who have made it need to be venture capitalists in tech. Let them invest in technology so that we can own our tech,” she said.

After all, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

But as events such as Women Techmakers try to build a more inclusive technology community, the challenges that have shaken the tech world in other countries continue to reverberate even here.

INCEDIARY BLOG

In February last year, Susan Fowler, then an engineer at tech giant Uber, wrote an incendiary blog that exposed a systemic culture of sexism and discrimination at Uber. In her blog, Fowler detailed the ways in which her direct manager had sexually harassed her by propositioning her for sex just weeks into her job at the company.

“On my first official day rotating on the team, my new manager sent me a string of messages over company chat. He was in an open relationship, he said, and his girlfriend was having an easy time finding new partners but he wasn’t. He was trying to stay out of trouble at work, he said, but he couldn’t help getting in trouble, because he was looking for women to have sex with. It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR,” writes Fowler.

But HR did not take any decisive action against the errant employee, citing his good performance at work, which forced Fowler to move to a different team. What followed is what Fowler describes as a “very, very strange year at Uber”, rife with casual sexism and blatant misogyny, all apparently sanctioned by top management.

Fowler ended up leaving the company, and writing the blog, which eventually brought down then-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Her boldness in documenting her experiences encouraged other women to come forward, heralding the #metoo wave that has since rocked Hollywood and the tech world in the US and elsewhere.

These events, though they have happened thousands of kilometres away, have found resonance in Nairobi’s growing tech scene.

USHAHIDI SAGA

Last year, an employee at Ushahidi, one of Kenya’s prominent technology firms, reported that a senior executive at the company had sexually harassed her. She, too, narrated her experiences in a blog, writing that the sexual overtures had made her unable to execute her duties at the company, forcing her to work from home before eventually resigning from her position.

“I began predominantly working from home, which thankfully was possible as Ushahidi allows remote working. I was going to the office only thrice a month on average and I timed my visits to the office to ensure that I would not have to run into {him},” she wrote, illustrating the heavy career price that a woman often has to pay if she is a victim of sexual harassment.

Ushahidi, which is a platform that promotes openness and transparency, especially during crises, was criticised for shoddily handling the matter, allowing the man to remain in charge even after other victims of his sexual harassment had come forward to corroborate the woman’s story. He was only suspended after public pressure against the company mounted.

Incidents such as these is why Dorothy believes that it is important to shore up the number of women in technology — and not just in subordinate positions but as bosses in their own right, where they can be in positions of influence.

“I have tremendous respect for women who have spoken out against sexual harassment or assault. I know the great cost it comes at because I have been sexually harassed, I have made a complaint and I have been made to feel like it was my fault because I am ‘too friendly’, which forced me to withdraw my case,” she told Lifestyle.

She added: “Women Techmakers gives women a safe space to speak out about sexual harassment, knowing that they will be believed and that their allegations will be treated with the seriousness they deserve. Men need to know that there are consequences for their behaviour.”

June acknowledges that her position as the boss of her own company has relatively shielded her from sexual harassment at her office, although this has not protected her from predators in the outside world.

“I have been sexually harassed by a potential client, someone whose business would have meant a lot for my fledgling company. One minute we were seated discussing business, the next, he had his hand up my thigh. I felt violated,” she said.

She added that even when men do not make overt sexual passes, she has to be wary because she is never sure about whether some of them are interested in her business or they are using it as an opening to get at something else. This constant vigilance can be exhausting.

“Men need to join the fight against sexual harassment because we cannot do it by ourselves. They need to be actively involved and vocal about it, otherwise it will take us a much longer time to get past it,” she said.

Both June and Dorothy, however, are optimistic that things are changing, and that companies are becoming better at handling sexual harassment claims, with many putting in place policies that expressly forbid harassment and formulating clear reporting channels for those who have been victims of it.

If the momentum can be sustained, women’s match into the brave world of tech can only be steadier.