Last week, I gave some concrete suggestions for improving participation by women in technology. Among them were exhortations to create an empowering environment to get work done. All of the mentoring and social networks in the world won’t help you if the atmosphere sucks. If men are actively silencing women during discussions you facilitate, you have failed these women. You have not lived up to your responsibility to create a non-oppressive safe space to explore and learn about technology. You may have failed to create a safe and harassment-free work environment.
Here are some concrete suggestions for creating a work environment that is inclusive to women.* Note that the vast majority of these suggestions have nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with creating an atmosphere that is not only non-oppressive, but actively encourages participation by women.
- Do not permit men to call women honey, dear, sweetheart, mama, or cherie. Be aware of local titles like aunt, uncle, and young woman, and pay attention to how they’re used. If all of the women are being referred to as “Young lady,” and all of the men are called “Uncle,” you have a problem.
- Do not allow men to tease women about whether they are single or married or have children. Yes, men will also tease men about this. Women will also tease women about this. It becomes oppressive when done by those with a vested interest in treating women like sex objects and primary child care providers instead of respected individuals.
- Do not allow men to make sexually suggestive remarks about women. Women are not great mothers, they are not beautiful, and they will not make a good wife some day. They are efficient, smart, and good business women. Focus on complements that complement who they are and what they do, not what they look like or their role in society.
- Women should not always be group secretaries (“recorders”). Men should not always be group reporters, nor should they always set the agenda for group work.
- If you will be serving refreshments, do not expect program participants to serve themselves. The women will end up bringing food and drinks to the men. This reinforces their social inferiority and their status as service objects. Find a fair way to pass out the food or pay for host(esse)s to distribute it.
- Call on women, and do not allow male voices to drown out female voices. The moment a conversation turns into an aggressive debate, women are silenced. They will not speak up in a confrontation with men and it is not fair to expect them to.
- Women may not be able to come in early, stay for lunch, or work late due to family obligations. Do not permit this to exclude them from social activities or possibilities for advancement, training, and advice. This is harder to do than you think.
- Women have been bombarded with messages about their inferiority and instructions to be submissive to men for centuries. It is not fair for you to expect them to throw off the yoke of cultural expectations because you want to “empower” them. It is not the fault of women that they have been socialized to react to men in any particular way. It is your fault for not knowing enough about their culture to facilitate the conversation.
I have not discussed child care, transportation, or timing because I believe that these things are very basic and very obvious. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Young children are not yet in school, and poor women may not have a domestic or a family member that can care for them. Babies are breastfed.
- Women often do not have their own means of transportation. They either pay for transportation, ask their husbands to bring them, or walk. They are vulnerable to assault and attack if your program is meeting at night or far from their homes.
- Women have family obligations at meal times.
Many of these suggestions are common sense; however, 5 years of designing and implementing ICT projects in Benin has showed me that common sense really isn’t, particularly when it comes to including marginalized groups. How do you make groups you lead comfortable for members of either sex? What should I add to this list?
* This is a heteronomative list that assumes a gender binary. I admit to having no idea how to account for a gender spectrum in a West African context and would love for readers to contribute suggestions.