Monthly Archives: September 2009

On women in tech, in Benin and back home in the States

This is the first of a series of posts in which I’ll discuss technology, women in technology, and women in technology in Benin.

My clients are all businessmen. Accent on men. After over two years of developing websites and web applications in Cotonou, we have a lot of clients (what can I say, we’re good at what we do!). Of these clients, two are women.

Less than 5% of all the clients we’ve taken on in two years are women.

I taught web development at Benin’s best public business school. Less than 10% of my students were women and of these, 100% wanted to go into MIS, not programming. A shame, because the quality of the women’s work was far more consistent than that of their male counterparts. I have yet to work with a female coder.

So why aren’t there more women in tech and running tech businesses in Benin?

  • Maternity leave makes women less competitive and more expensive to hire. Despite any legal protections in place, paternity leave effectively does not exist, although most businesses allow a few days.
  • There are far fewer girls in higher education than men. Women have lower literacy rates and higher dropout rates for a number of reasons.
  • Women face strong social pressure to take on jobs that allow time off to take care of a family because day-to-day childcare is the women’s responsibility and not the man’s.
  • Women are considered more caring, more nurturing, and more illogical than their male counterparts. And the behaviors that make for successful managers are socially inacceptable for women.
  • Women are expected to get married and start a family. Until they’ve done this, they won’t be taken seriously or considered successful. After they’ve done this, they’ve got kids, which is not conducive to taking risks like starting a business or working for a start-up.
  • Paradoxically, the strong pressure on rich upwardly mobile women to not depend on their husbands for income makes choosing a risky career harder for the very women who should have it easier.
  • Women who do succeed in tech are marginalized socially for a number of reasons, including their small numbers, their perceived sexuality, and the fact that they can’t out drinking with the boys when there’s a baby at home waiting for them.
  • Men don’t like it when women initially intrude into traditionally male spheres.
  • Misogyny.

Wait a second, how many of these points are true for the States too?

There’s been a bit of talk lately about the lack of women at TechChruch50, at tech conferences, and in the technology sphere in general*. A great deal of the commentary is women responding, “Yes, of course there’s a problem,” and men responding, “What do you want from me?!?! We live in post-feminist world. Sexism is dead, okay?!?!”

As a woman who lives in the developing world, this kind of rhetoric falls particularly flat because it’s the same rhetoric that encourages sexism and misogyny here. “We let you vote, what more do you want?” “We gave you legal protection from discrimination. If you’re sexually harassed on the job, you must have been asking for it.” “Women are just naturally more nurturing. That’s why they should stay home and take care of the kids.” “Men shouldn’t have to help level the playing field. It’s not our fault women just aren’t interested in tech. Finding quality women conference speakers who can serve as examples and mentors and even tokens is hard and shouldn’t be our responsibility.”

Sound familiar to anyone else? It’s so weird that the same men who can be so open about the difficulties faced by women in emerging economies are so bloody blind when it comes to their home turf.

On why I don’t hate on PayPal for not operating in sub-Saharan Africa

I’m just going to get this out of the way: I am quite sympathetic to PayPal and how they’ve cut off the entire continent of Africa.

Going to a cybercafé in Cotonou means two out of three computers are occupied by Beninese or Nigerian boys scamming rich Americans and Europeans. Sometimes, they’re training 9 and 10 year olds.

Benin has a very small IP block, which means that almost all users of a given ISP share the same outward looking IP. Over the past two years, every single IP available to Benin has been blocked by my bank, one by one. My mother checks my online balance back in the States and emails me screenshots. Really.

Scammers from as far away as Ghana come to Cotonou to join scamming cults (in the French sense of the world) and learn rituals that will make their victims more likely to believe the scammers and more likely to hand over big cash. Sakata + Black Magic = Big Business.

Scamming is a mafia operation. The little guys working in cybers do it because its quick and easy cash, not because they’re making millions. Once a scammer gets a hook here in Cotonou, it’s passed up the line, usually ending up at a Big Man in Lagos, who will string the victim along as long as possible. This mafia includes policemen, commissioners, and judges that are regularly paid to look the other way on both sides of the border. It goes all the way up the chain. [1]

Victims are not just rich Americans and Europeans. Many scams involve visas and promises of marriage in exchange for various fees that always seem to create more and more fees until … oops, no more money to pay the rent.

Interesting and related story: SGB is a French bank with branches in Benin (SGBB). About a year ago, they started offering VISA debit cards that allowed anyone holding a bank account with them to make purchases online. Fraud rates were so high that they had to suspend the service.

Interesting and related fact: Banking regulations in the States and Europe protect the consumer. PayPal is on the line for all fraudulent transactions, even if the scammer has already pulled the money out of their system. How is PayPal going to chase down the money in West Africa? They can’t and they won’t.

Perhaps it’s because I live two hours from Lagos in a city where many Nigerians have immigrated because Nigeria has actually started to crack down on online scams (that’s what the immigrants tell me, anyway). Perhaps it’s because scammers make my life, as an entrepreneur and freelancer living in West Africa, bloody difficult, but I’m more sympathetic to banks who cut off Africa than Jon seems to be:

I realize that the problem can’t be solved entirely by Paypal alone but I would appreciate at least an option to flag my account in advance for what might be mistaken for ’suspicious activity’. I’d be happy to leave this to PayPal’s discretion but my problem is they aren’t using any. African transaction? Banned! Banks will allow customers to indicate that they will be abroad for a certain period so that they don’t shutdown accounts by mistake. Why doesn’t PayPal? You’d be surprised at how damaging these blanket policies can be to an organization like mine that simply just wants to pay employees and be paid by clients.

I suppose the complaint is that PayPal doesn’t give me an option to avoid my account getting bricked. It costs me money every time they do it. They give me no alternative to prevent it from happening and when I talk to them, somehow it’s my fault for existing ‘in that country where The Last King of Scotland took place‘.

The lack of e-commerce and e-payment options open to Africans is a huge problem, but the solution is not “make PayPal accept payments.” Don’t forget that PayPal alternative Moneybookers keeps 7% of every transaction in order to have enough cash on hand to refund claims against fraud. Banks and companies like PayPal want to make money. If they saw a way to enter the African market and not lose money, they would be all over it.

Before e-commerce solutions come to sub-Saharan Africa, Africa needs to be a profitable environment for e-commerce solutions. This means cracking down on fraud and improving justice systems. It means a better regulatory environment, or at least, enforcement of regulations on the books. PayPal needs legal protection from fraud as much as consumers do.

Perhaps an enterprising entrepreneur needs to come up with something brand new and not tied to the West.

[1] Note to self: do a corruption 101 post later this week