Tag Archives: feminism

Good reads for March 21st

Good reads for February 26th

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?

On eating disorders and the patriarchy

Last night, a feminist friend and I* were out drinking with a man. We’re all mid-to-upper class whites, well educated, socially mobile, and currently living in Benin. The man, several years out of undergrad, was astounded at the high numbers of women who had eating disorders while he was in school. My friend and I were not. Actually, we responded with derision. “What? The rates for your school weren’t high. They’re typical.”

He was appalled.

We explained the intense social pressure on women raised by second-wave feminists. We have been told that we can do anything and be anything. It’s an empowering message, and it’s one that we should continue communicating to all of our children; however, society tells these girls that not only can they do anything and everything, but they must. Straight-A students. Captains of the soccer team. Presidents of the debate club. Dancers. Musicians. Actors. We can do anything we want, even be the president.

Outward prettiness (i.e. being thin) is one more thing that well educated girls need on our way to the top. We’re not stupid. We know that our fortunes are tied to our looks, and we’ve been raised believing that there’s nothing in this world that we can’t do if we work hard enough (because there isn’t … wait! what?!).

Needing to control your appearance + being told that you can achieve anything = We WILL be thin, even if it kills us. Because we can do anything. And not doing it just means that we’re not working hard enugh.

My friend and I were talking about how we’d both done some stupid shit to lose weight, as early as high school. I remember summers where I swam 5 days a week at the Y with my mom, then came home and ate 600 calories (2 sandwiches) for the rest of the day. Or summers at my grandmothers where I would bike for 4 hours a day, not because I loved it, but because she had given cookies to my brother and refused them to me–I was chubby even as a child. Who needs lunch in high school? Cigarettes and Diet Coke should be enough for any growing girl.

I learned how to suck in my stomach in the 4th grade. WTF?!?!?!

We’ve grown up to be relatively well-adjusted women, feminists who believe in women’s right to choose their path, who understand how a patriarchial system affects these choices, and who really just want to do some good in our lives. We know how the system works, and we understand how our self-esteem has been systematically undermined since childhood, and we’re still not over it. We never will be.

* I also self-identify as a feminist

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.