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.

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3 thoughts on “On women in tech, in Benin and back home in the States

  1. Dramane

    Another argument may be that women lack “patience” (very few of them are available to spend a whole night in front of a computer screen to .. improve a small feature of an application) and are less “tough” than their male counterparts. I remember when I used to be a student, our female comrades were well known to dislike programming. But they were excellent in modelling, needs analysis and the production of documentation for software projects. We boys were more interested at impressing the teachers with our software, even if the analysis behind was generally less rigorous than that of girls.

    Best

    Reply
    1. theresa Post author

      I’m wary of any arguement that says “girls are like THIS. boys are like THAT.” Women may be less available to spend the whole night in front of the computer because despite the many advances in equality of the sexes, women still shoulder the most responsibility for home and children. Someone’s got to make sure the kids are fed. Someone’s got to get them to sleep. Someone’s got to give them their allergy medication. Etc. Etc. Etc. Is this a lack of “toughness”? Or the logical outcome of a society that forces women into caregiving roles, whether they’d rather be at work programming or not?

      Reply
  2. Aunt Lynne

    Hi Theresa,
    Part of my job is web maintenance and development for Financial Operations here at W&M. Most of the individuals in IT that I deal with are women, but I thought I would check the numbers after reading your blog. We have 100 IT people, of which 36 are women. But in Web Development, half are women. Hopefully, in 20 years you can say something similar. In the meantime, I consider you a true pioneer!

    Love,
    Aunt Lynne

    Reply

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