Category Archives: IT in Africa

The road to where is paved with good intentions?

Why am I only now discovering the ICT4D Jester? Oh, lost hero, how well you express my doubts and fears about ICTs and development. One of the reasons I no longer actively blog about technology for development and in developing contexts is because I feel like an asshole when I criticize some of the big movers and shakers in the sector. There are occasionally other critical voices, but many (and by no means all) of these critical voices come across as assholes, jealous of others’ success.

It’s true that I am, in fact, an asshole, but not because I mindlessly criticize others who are more popular and successful than I am. My view on ICTs is formed by my experience as a business owner who doesn’t work with the bottom billion. Or even the second bottom billion. Our clients are firmly in the middle billion, and that’s OK. Our clients’ employees are in the second billion, and some of them (orphanages, schools, etc) have clients in the bottom billion.

But we never interact with them because it’s really fucking hard to scale revenue from people who only make a few dollars a day.

I’m an asshole because it’s easier for me to bow out of the discussion and just run my business than it is for me to jump right in and tell you why you’re wrong. Here’s the thing: nobody’s going to inner-city Baltimore and handing out iPads and iPhones and whosits and whatsits galore. Nobody’s saying that better access to technology is the panacea. Nobody’s saying that better bandwidth is key to a higher standard of living. And certainly, programs that make wild claims about their impacts, based on limited short-term results, aren’t taken terribly seriously.

The problem in Baltimore isn’t access to technology. But when you make a statement like the above one, except you replace Baltimore with, oh, the DRC, Nairobi, or another city of choice, everyone jumps in to tell you, “No, Theresa! It’s not like that! Small scale projects! Social entrepreneurship! Empowering communities!”

I don’t doubt that the road to hell is paved with the best intentions. There are some wicked cool tools out there, but I see many of the best minds in America struggling with issues of technology, power, consent, and decision making … in America. Linda Raftree has written some very smart articles on these dynamics in the developing world, but from where I’m sitting, I see a lot more “cool toy” out there than, “how can community members harness existing resources to make their lives better?”

Here’s what I know: Wealthy young West Africans are on Facebook. There aren’t very many wealthy young West Africans. All of the mobile monitoring and Facebook use in West Africa in the world didn’t change the international community’s opinion of election results in Nigeria or Benin.

Hmmm.

3.1 Mb downloads in Benin? For 15 000 FCFA/mo? Are you out of your mind?

Kanakoo Liberty + Netbook

Somebody must have put Benin Telecom’s feet to the fire because they’ve launched a series of impressive initiatives to lower the price of bandwidth for Beninese consumers. They have:

  1. doubled the bandwidth for all DSL consumers. That means users who were paying 25 000 FCFA ($50) for 256 kbs are now getting 512. Users who were paying 80 000 FCFA ($160) for 512 now get 1Mbs. Pretty impressive.
  2. repaired the WiMax network, and we are now getting the 256 kbs that we pay 25 000 FCFA ($50) for, even during peak periods.
  3. launched a new CDMA service (Kanakoo Liberté), promising users download speeds of up to 3.1 mbs for 15 000 FCFA ($30) a month. The USB key to access the CDMA service is 45 000 FCFA ($90).

Suspicious of the good news, I borrowed a new Liberté modem from a friend and spent the weekend putting the service through its paces.

Benin Telecom’s customer service is horrifically bad. As in, I called and asked what the password to connect is, and they told me that not only is there not a password, but that I must be doing something wrong if the software’s asking me for one. A few emails to the Beninese tech community later, and I had a solution. Yes, there is a password, and yes, it’s the same password for every modem: 11111111. Don’t lose it, y’all.

This modem, unlike the previous Kanakoo version, works with Ubuntu out of the box. No more mucking around with wvdial. This is huge, as none of the GSM modems play well with Linux.

The modem consistently downloads at 600kbs. I got speeds of up to 1.2 mbs off-peak. Not as good as 3.1m, but definitely better than 256k.

I’m hesitant to call the new service an unmitigated success because I was in love with WiMax until Benin Telecoms overloaded the network, and oh! hey! weekly (sometimes daily) downtime is awesome. So let’s call this a reserved recommendation. It’s cheap enough to make it worth a try.

8 ways to create an inclusive work environment for women

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Concrete steps to make your ICT(4D) projects more gender inclusive and woman-friendly

Are you looking for a woman working in IT? Someone who’s bright, innovative, and ready to take risks? Someone who’s already trained in the basics and is excited to learn more?

Have you talked to a secretary lately?

People Online works with a lot of secretaries. It’s all well and good to sell the boss a shiny new website, but when it comes to maintenance and content, he (and it’s always a he) isn’t going to be the one updating content. Or checking email. Or responding to inquiries. Or analyzing statistics. Or editing graphics.

His secretary, on the other hand, knows how to turn on the computer. She probably prints out his emails every morning. She responds to everyone who fills out the contact form. She knows Word. She’s familiar with Excel. She knows how to do an Internet search, and she’s definitely on Facebook. She’s smart, she’s organized, and she knows that learning a new skill is her ticket to more power or a better job.

Directors are often skeptical when we request that their secretaries be include in our training sessions. Employees are equally skeptical. She’s “just” the secretary. She’s a “just” woman. Or worse, “she’s not a man”. She’s not well educated. She’s not. She’s not. She’s not. Sometimes, clients refuse. 3 months later, these same directors are paying us additional fees for another training session. For whom? You guessed it. Their secretaries.

I wish that secretaries would be a little bit less grateful for the attention and the confidence. I wish that their patrons would trust them right away to manage a website, instead of grouchily conceding the work to her for three months, then enthusiastically embracing the fact that they can shove all of the work they didn’t want to do anyway onto a woman who’s excited to do it.

The career paths of secretaries that we train change dramatically. They’re able to insist on better paychecks for the overtime they’re putting in maintaining websites. They earn more respect from their coworkers. Anyone can figure out Word, but the Internets are a scary and magical place, and she’s got the power to navigate it. And she has profesrole models. And she has a social network of similarly trained secretaries. And why is she still working as a secretary anyway, when she can move into design, documentation, or web production?

There are a lot of systemic barriers to women using technology. Linda speaks of many of them, and suggests reading the Plan report on girls. I agree. I also think that we, as innovators and pioneers in the technology space, have a responsibility to make sure that the discussion of women in tech here doesn’t devolve to look like the discussion back home in the States.

If you’re an entrepreneur in Africa, and you’re scratching your head about how to include women in your tech start-up, your ICT4D project, or your training sessions, I have a few concrete suggestions for you:

  1. Check out the secretaries and assistants of whatever organization you’re working with. Good ones have their finger on the pulse of an enterprise.
  2. Provide a social network of women in addition to any training. In societies where women are constantly bombarded with messages of inferiority and expectations of submissiveness to men, it helps to have a network of professional equals that you can go to for advice.
  3. Stop thinking of a non-technical background as a liability. Many of the entrepreneurs and managers you’ll be working with don’t have a technical background either, but because they’re male in a strongly patriarchal society, they’ve learned how to confidently bullshit about it. Also, hey! no bad habits to break.
  4. Find woman role models that can help those you’re working with navigate the complex maze of power, relationships, gender, and technology. These women don’t have to have a formal relationship with your program, but they should be part of the social network you’re making available to your trainees, employees, and project beneficiaries. If you cannot find any woman role models you are not looking hard enough and it is your fault, not the fault of women who aren’t visible enough.
  5. Create an inclusive social atmosphere. It is not the fault of any woman that she has to go home and cook for her family, instead of joining all of the men for drinks in the evening. It is not the fault of any woman that she cannot come to lunch-time bull sessions because she is breast feeding. It is not the fault of any woman that she is uncomfortable wearing sports clothes and playing basketball in a mixed gender setting. It is your fault for making these activities part of your project’s social expectations. Fix that.
  6. Listen to women. They’re not going to want to talk to you, a man, but you need to figure out the most culturally appropriate way to get them talking about the difficulties they face as women. It is not ever up to you, as a man or as a foreigner or as someone with a higher social status than them, to insist that something, anything, is not misogyny, sexism, or oppression. Just listen goddammit.

What are you doing to include and empower women in your technology projects?

Browser statistics and Commentary for Benin (or, IE6 isn’t going anywhere fast, so we might as well stop complaining and get back to work)

People Online still guarantees IE6 compatibility for almost 100% of the sites we develop. We don’t even charge extra for it! And this is why:

We’ve spent an awful lot of time in cybercafés in West Africa, and an awful lot of these cybercafés are still running Windows XP (or Windows 2000! Or Windows 98!) and IE6. Anecdotal evidence aside, the default install for Windows XP is IE6, and most offices here never upgrade (why should they?).

It’s all good and well to say that only stuffy corporate offices in the States are using IE6, but my experience has shown otherwise. I analyzed a sample of People Online’s 10 most trafficked websites, all aimed at both local and international audiences This criteria actually didn’t exclude anything, as none of the sites aimed exclusively internationally or locally made the top 10.

Browser share number crunching for Benin

19% of our traffic is local. Not bad, but not great. We should probably work more with clients to publicize the sites in country and optimize for Yahoo!, which gives us far more local referrals than Google (note to self: possible later blog post).

18.8% of our traffic uses IE6. This number by itself is relatively large, but still small enough that we could start quietly dropping support, warning our clients not to expect pixel-perfect results. Except that …

35.5% of our Beninese traffic is IE6. That is, over 1/3 of a major target audience is still using IE6. Oops. That’s far to large to drop support, especially considering that many sites have much higher percentages (up to 49.6%). In this sample, opposition newspapers tended to have the lowest IE6 usage rates, while pro-administration newspapers had the highest. That too probably merits its own blog post.

27.9% of Beninese users are using Firefox, and 16.6% are using IE7. Only are 15.4% using IE8. That might sound like good news for open source, but what it really means is that we’ve got a pretty even distribution of browsers, dominated by IE6. I imagine that Firefox will overtake IE6 by the end of 2010, but as long as IE6 is still overing around a third, we don’t have have a choice but to support it.

I think it’s marvelous that there are markets in Sub-Saharan Africa where IE6 holds a small enough share that developers can drop support. That’s wonderful! IE6 is a buggy disaster and it makes for both CSS and JavaScript nightmares; however, our market does not allow us to do the same. It doesn’t even allow us optional support.

Most of our local users connect from cybercafés and government offices. They don’t download the latest and greatest versions because it’s not their job to do so. If you’re in a developing market and you’re considering dropping IE6 support, take the time to study your analytics (you’re doing that anyway, right?). Africa’s Internet market is not monolithic.

Facts, lies, and conjecture: Benin Telecoms’ latest blow up

What we know (facts):

  • Our Internet connection has been out since last Friday.
  • So have those of all other WiMax clients.
  • Non-WiMax clients of Benin Telecoms have been having problems since Friday for certain types of downloads and have experienced unusual bandwidth shaping.
  • Connections from other ISPs sometimes work, and sometimes don’t. There is probably a pattern, but we don’t yet know it.
  • .bj domains are up and down and up and down (currently down).

What we’ve been told by Benin Telecoms employees (lies, truths, and half-truths):

  • Benin Telecoms isn’t recognizing WiMax customers’ passwords.
  • Employees of Benin Telecoms shared their passwords with friends so that said friends could use services for free.
  • Benin Telecoms employees are having password problems (including the only person there who can check account status).
  • Benin Telecoms has never seen a problem like this before (and is panicking).

What we think (100% conjecture):

  • Sharing passwords that give access to sensitive information is BAD BAD BAD.
  • Benin Telecoms has no idea how to fix this.
  • This seems to be a perfect storm of overselling bandwidth, poor security, password sharing, cheap equipment, and lack of expertise.

I’m currently using Moov’s USB modem (GPRS) to connect. It’s not bad for checking email, web stats, and occasional blogging, although I wouldn’t recommend it for anything heavy duty, as the connection’s quite unstable.

Hopefully the connection will be back next week, and we’ll be in the free and clear. Otherwise, Bertrand and I will be in the uncomfortable position of looking for a new ISP. For now, we’re using Moov, and hopping around Cotonou looking for cybercafés that work. An hour or two here, an hour or two there—it’s expensive, but it’s the only way to stay in business.

What a way to end the year, Benin Telecoms.

Did you know the sky is blue? Obvious and less-obvious in ICT4D conversations

I have a confession to make.

I’m not a development worker.

I work with ICTs in the developing world, but I am driven by profit. This is both a luxury and a burden. It’s cool that people think I have something to say about ICT4D. I don’t. I have a lot to say about ICTs in the developing world, but much less to say about ICTs in a development context. Because I don’t know a bloody thing about development. My world view is skewed towards profits and markets.

In my line of work, ROI is very clear. Either the project makes (or saves!) my client a lot of money, or it doesn’t. Either it increases exposure by X number of readers a month or it doesn’t. Either it brings in advertising revenue, or it doesn’t. Either it brings in new clients, or it doesn’t. Either it fills a market need or it doesn’t.

Our clients are not poor. Broke, sure, that’s normal for small businesses everywhere in the world. But not poor. Their clients are rarely poor either. We don’t work with the BoP.

We don’t have to worry about quality of life.  We don’t have to worry about development indicators. We don’t even have to worry about government buy-in. While we do worry about ethics, we don’t have to worry about negative externalities that will make life worse for a large number of people. Our projects just don’t work that way (and thank goodness for that).

On the other hand, because our clients are paying for the tools we build, I don’t have the luxury of choosing an expensive tool that may or may not work. I can only choose tools that work. Otherwise, I lose clients. Not taking end-users needs and wants into consideration results in failed projects lessoned learned. “Lessons learned” = “very expensive mistake” for clients with limited cash flow.

Seems people still thinking, develop in West and take it to Africa who lags. Need to develop in Africa within resource & context #ICT4D

It’s a luxury to be able to work exclusively locally. Even when we deal with the government, there’s flexibility that doesn’t exist in development and aid sectors, because we’re a private sector firm being paid for our services. As a businesswoman, I cannot imagine designing a tool for local businesses without ever having set foot on the ground and spoken to the end users.

Technology is a tool that allows users to do many many things, including becoming more informed about the world around them, improve rural heath care, encourage citizen journalism, clean water, and a million other things. Tools have to be appropriate to their context.

In some ways, it’s limiting to only do work for money. There are a lot of cool projects that pass us by, including projects that could improve quality of life for a lot of people. Our work is almost exclusively small and local, which means that we rarely work on country-wide implementations. We don’t do large-scale public health projects, for example. Even when we work with development organizations, we’re very focused. We’re hired to accomplish very specific goals: build X tool that accomplishes Y within Z budget, or train X number of people to be able to accomplish Y.

Technology is easy. Issues around geography, language, culture, true empowerment and paths to adoption are challenges. #ICT4D

On the other hand, it’s liberating. My job is to look at the market and find new ways to fill market gaps, and that’s easy to measure. Either we’re profitable or we’re not.

ICT4D fills the space between “market demand” and “making lives better.” There are a million ways to improve quality of life that don’t have obvious revenue models. I like to use crisis mapping as an example of this, but there are many others (public health, education, etc). Projects like this are what government and development do best. Entrepreneurs aren’t moving into this space because we can’t figure out ways to make them profitable (yet).

It’s appalling to me that there are people who design projects without accounting for local needs. It’s appalling to me that we even need to discuss why this is important. Those who took part in yesterday’s Twitter chat are aware of this. But for me, it’s like being aware that the sky is blue. Of course it’s blue. There’s a reason it’s blue. Everybody knows it’s blue. Why are we running around talking about how blue the sky is?

#ICT4D #FAIL is corp. IT firms installing high end Cisco + Blades + CO2 fire supression in crumbling gov ministries. IT is not Magic.

The answer is, of course, that there are a large number of people involved in ICT4D who are not aware that context-appropriate solutions are the only solutions that work. Which is crazy. I actually don’t know anyone in #ict4d who isn’t having intelligent conversations about appropriate technology. I do, however, have evidence that such people exist, because Beninese ministries keep paying me to clean up their messes. Someday, I would like to meet these folks.

It’s odd to participate in conversations about development where everyone’s like, “Yeah! Local! Small! Low-tech! Sustainable!” For a businessperson, these things are so painfully obvious, they even don’t need to be said.

On Internet in Benin and the lack thereof

Last Thursday, we woke up to no Internet. At 8:00, we called Benin Telecoms to signal the problem. “We’ll send a team right away,” they said. “Are you sure you need to send a team out here? We just can’t log in, so the problem’s probably on your end.” “What could you possibly know about our servers? We’ll send a team over right away,” they responded.

At 10:30, still no team. Bertrand calls again. “Yeah, we can’t send anyone because we don’t have any spare cars. The director said that we can only transport equipment in official vehicles, and all of the teams are already out.” “But we were the first ones to call this morning!” Bertrand protested. “Yeah, well, not my problem. We’ll call you right before the team leaves for your house.” “What? I have a job, you know. I can’t wait around all day.” “Well, that’s not my problem either. The team will come when it comes.”

5:30pm. You guessed it. Still no connection, still no visit from Benin Telecoms.

Eventually their technicians stopped by, only to tell us that our recharge card had expired early.” Just pay another $50 for a new one,” they said. “But we’ve got 10 days left on this one!” “Yeah, we can’t help you.” We made enough noise that the techs spent all day Friday trying to credit our account. It didn’t work (of course it didn’t work!), and we ended buying a card and getting our connection back Friday evening.

Last night, some guys selling a shady satellite connection stopped by. I guess they’re used to talking to potential clients who know nothing about the Internet, because they were pretty much assholes. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not a dumb trophy wife, and I ask smart questions. They’ll get back to me, they said.

This morning? You guessed it. The connection’s out again.

Because we can’t get DSL in our neighborhood, there’s really only one alternative to Benin Telecoms. Unfortunately, they’re more expensive, and we had a really awful experience the last time we used them. We actually met with the Lebanese owners a few weeks ago. It was a lovely conversation and I appreciated the birds-eye view of the telecoms industry. They seemed like nice guys. However, all the nice guys in the world can’t get me enthusiastic about going back to an ISP where we were treated so terribly before. Every time I think about walking into their waiting room, my stomach clenches and I start to feel dizzy.

Yeah, that’s right. Theresa “Fuck this shit I CAN TAKE YOU” Carpenter Sondjo is afraid to walk into a Beninese ISP because they treated me so awfully the last time. What if that asshole is still there? What if he refuses to sign us up because we left them before? What if they call me a liar again? What if they lie about our contract again? What if they lie to my husband about what they promised us when he goes alone because I’m too upset to go back? What if we pay for a connection after they’ve promised to reimburse us the entire $200 installation fee if the connection sucks, and then tell us that they’ll be keeping $50 anyway? What if I end up crying in their lobby again?

Of course all that would never happen. The reality is that I’d just call up their Commercial Director and say, “Yo, we’re ready to try again.” And he’d be super nice and take care of all the details and no problem at all. But of course that doesn’t stop me from having completely irrational freakouts.

All this to say that for the moment we’re stuck with Benin Telecoms. And no connection. And that makes me sad.

I thought this post was published this morning but the connection must have conked out in the middle of the upload AND SO IT GOES.

On why language is important when talking about women in tech

This is the second in a series of posts where I address technology, women in technology, and women in technology in Benin. *

Accompanying the recent spate of questions about how to find more and better women speakers for tech conferences, the general lack of women in technology, and a lot of comments about women’s capabilities and skills, has been a dreadful abuse of the English language hinting that women just don’t hack it in the technology sphere.

Why is okay to say that Mike Arrington is an asshole, but calling Sarah Lacey a princess is off limits? Why is making snarky comments about Xeni’s good looks bad, but saying that Stii is adorable okay?

In a word, privilege. What? What’s privilege, you say? It’s being the default (male) and benefiting from living in a patriarchal society that is institutionally sexist. It’s not intentional and it is not the same thing as being sexist or misogynist. If you have privilege, you can’t help it, and you can’t get rid of it. But you should realize it exists. Here’s a great list of privileges men have that women don’t. It’s worth reading the entire article, but I’m excerpting items that are particularly relevant to this discussion.

If I am male …

1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.

4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities.

10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.

15. When I ask to see “the person in charge,” odds are I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.

24. Even if I sleep with a lot of women, there is no chance that I will be seriously labeled a “slut,” nor is there any male counterpart to “slut-bashing.”

33. My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.

41. Magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are rarer.

42. In general, I am under much less pressure to be thin than my female counterparts are. If I am fat, I probably suffer fewer social and economic consequences for being fat than fat women do.

45. On average, I am not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by men.

46. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.

So what does this all mean, and how does it apply to talking about women in tech?

There are a lot of snotty jerks who think they’re smarter than everyone else in the tech sphere. There are a lot of pundits whose qualifications are doubtful at best. But singling out women as being particularly unqualified is unfair and contributes to the “boys club” feeling that tech often has. When you call a man an asshole, that man is an asshole. When you say that there are too many princesses writing about tech, you’re making a point about women, not just that woman.

In a male dominated sphere, especially one as related to show biz as the start-up scene, women get farther by being beautiful, charming, and having a larger than life personality. This is not any particular woman’s fault. It’s the fault of a patriarchal system that makes women sex objects first and entrepreneurs second.

In “Technology, the African women in it, and beer”, Miquel said:

For women (again in North America and Europe) the focus is usually on being some cutesy girl who does the occasional special interest piece, but who has no idea which end of a conditional statement is up. The worst of this type are the Sarah Laceys and Xeni Jardins of the world because they create a perception that if you’re a cute, sexy girl, then that’s all that matters. In other words, style and appearance far outweigh the substance of what they write.

Sure, their good looks might be what appeals to a lot of misogynist geeks, but the reality is that these women write very competently about technology. You don’t have to be a programmer to write about tech. Mike Arrington and Corey Doctorow aren’t techies, but nobody runs around questioning their right to write about technology.

Using words like “princess” and “diva” to negatively class women participating in the tech scene reinforces privilege by reinforcing the idea that a woman has to work twice as hard to prove herself, especially if she is beautiful. It’s not enough that she’s participating. Now, she has to participate in exactly the way and manner that men want her to. She has to be conscious of the image she projects, not simply for her own good, but because for many readers, she represents her entire gender.

There are many kinds of women. Happy women. Sad women. Beautiful women. Ugly women. Smart women. Technical women. Nice women. Mean women. We want more women in tech. We want more woman programmers, more woman pundits, more woman critics, more woman writers, more woman presenters, more woman everything. And that means welcoming everyone, whether you feel like you can take them out for a beer or not.

Both Africa and the West need more women in tech. Continuing to stereotype western women in tech as princesses and divas only worsens the problem, instead of fixing it. Certainly, it gives no credit to the thousands of women that spend their entire lives developing new and exciting technologies.

* Parts of this post are excerpted from an email that I sent to Miquel before picking on him in public.

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.