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:
- Check out the secretaries and assistants of whatever organization you’re working with. Good ones have their finger on the pulse of an enterprise.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?