September 10, 2012
September 10, 2012
LAGOS, NIGERIA – The books she read growing up made Oreoluwa Somolu, executive director of the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre, W.TEC, a Nigerian nongovernmental organization, want to be a nurse because women were usually nurses and men were usually doctors in the literature of her childhood.
She says that stereotypes in media and pop culture are reinforced every day in Nigerian life, which influence women’s career paths.
“An engineer, web developer or database manager would usually be depicted on television and in books as male,” Somolu says. “Then, women draw from their personal experiences. Frequently, many of the people they know in these types of jobs are men so the idea is reinforced that these jobs are for men.”
She says this keeps many women from achieving their potential.
“When stereotypes abound, many women might be discouraged from considering jobs that they might actually enjoy and excel at,” she says.
She says she was lucky that her mother told her not to listen to these stereotypes and that her father introduced her to the information and communication technology, ICT, industry. Through W.TEC, Somolu is now trying to do the same for other girls and women.
Through W.TEC’s projects and workshops, she introduces girls and women of all ages to ICT. She aims to empower them socially and economically by teaching them not only the basics of technology but also that ICTs are not just for men.
As the ICT industry expands in Nigeria, women say they face an extra gender barrier to get involved on top of general challenges related to cost and accessibility. But women who have challenged the stereotype that ICT is only for men say there are a variety of user-friendly ways to join the technology revolution. Still, they say more needs to be done to make ICT more female-friendly, including increased encouragement to study ICT, policies to improve accessibility and statistics to inform these policies.
The past decade has shown an increase in the use of ICTs in Nigeria. Mobile phone companies have flooded the market, as more than 87 million Nigerians – more than half the population, according to World Bank figures – have cell phones, according to Enough is Enough Nigeria, a coalition of young people and youth organizations seeking good governance and public accountability. Computer villages, or hubs for computer hardware shops, and cybercafés have sprung up in cities. Nigerians have access to broadband services, however slow. Twitter, Facebook and blogs have made citizen journalism rife here. Nigerian youth are developing “apps.”
But a lack of electricity, insufficient access to resources, limited government support and poverty are some of the challenges Nigerians face in their pursuit of an ICT-driven society. And women suffer a double burden: these challenges, plus the stereotypes of society.
“Women are in the minority of users in almost all developed and developing countries,” according to a 2005 report by the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women, now merged with three other divisions under U.N. Women.
Sokari Ekine is the founder of and principal writer for Black Looks, a blog. Like Somolu, Ekine was also introduced to ICT by a man, her brother.
“The culture around technology is a very masculine one,” she says. “It acts as an exclusionary space for women, as you know you will inevitably [be] in a small minority.”
She says that in addition to being in the minority, that there are other forms of discrimination within the industry.
“There are other insidious ways of expressing sexism within ICTs – through the use of masculine language, sexist assumptions that you cannot understand or don’t have the skills.”
Other factors that cause the digital divide between men and women in ICT include education, language barriers, time, cost and location. Many communities here educate men before women, as male enrollment is about 10 percent higher than female enrollment in primary and secondary school, according to UNICEF. Many women say they must dedicate their money and time to taking care of their families instead of equipping themselves with ICT skills.
But many of these things are slowly changing.
In addition to Somolu and Ekine, other women challenging the stereotypes in the ICT industry here include: Florence Seriki, chief executive officer of Omatek Computers, an ICT company; Adenike Osofisan, president of the Computer Professionals Registration Council of Nigeria, which regulates the country’s ICT industry; Nadu Denloye, director of Telnet Nigeria Limited, a global ICT company; and Myne Whitman, writer and founder of Naija Stories, an online social network for Nigerian writers. Yet this is insignificant compared with their male counterparts in the same sector.
But Whitman says that multiple platforms are available to encourage other women to help them change this.
“Web 2.0 sites like Facebook, Twitter can be tools for building connections and generating [a] customer base,” Whitman says. “These are places where people meet, make connections, and advance careers in the case of LinkedIn or job search forums.”
She encourages women that these websites aren’t hard to use yet have the potential to have a large impact.
“It is very simple to make the leap to using these as step-off[s] for advocating for causes,” she says. “It is not too difficult [a] task to set up a blog, a Facebook group, a Twitter profile and then connect all these together to make updates easier. Then target the audience you need and send out mass broadcasts to raise awareness on any particular issue.”
These women say that increased access to ICTs can lead to greater economic development for women and the country as a whole.
Ekine says that the doors to ICT aren’t closed to women officially but that it is important to support women who wish to enter technology- and science-related courses at school and professional levels.
“This is changing, but in Nigeria it is a slow change,” she says. “It’s having the access and a supportive environment where women are welcome and encouraged.”
Whitman agrees that the gender divide can be addressed by encouraging girls from an early age to explore whatever areas they have an interest or aptitude in and encouraging women who are in ICT to make themselves more visible so that young girls can have role models to look up to.
“There also needs to be a political basis to this conversation, better policies in the workplace and politics,” she says. “Men and women need to work together and not in gender silos to find a balance that works for the whole society.”
Ekine says ICT training also needs to be made more accessible.
“[We] need to improve the infrastructure, lessen the costs surrounding [the] use of ICTs, improving training standards and access particularly for women and girls and also provide ICTs in local languages so it is more accessible to more people.”
According to a World Bank report, data on the gender gap also needs to be collected, which is necessary for governments to address the divide.
“We ‘know’ that there is a gender gap in the digital divide in several developed and many more developing countries, but there are very little data,” according to the World Bank report. “Without such data, it is difficult, if not impossible to make the case for the inclusion of gender issues in ICT policies, plans and strategies for policymakers.”
Others say it is important for more women’s organizations to encourage their staffs to use ICTs. For example, the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy, an international nongovernmental organization, recently launched a website called Free2Run, which aims to report on women in politics and leadership. Another organization, Women in Technology in Nigeria, which aims to socio-economically empower women through ICT, organizes technology-driven projects to promote women’s independence.
For any woman who desires to go into ICT as a career, though, Ekine says it also comes down to self-motivation.
“Go for it,” she says. “Build networks, groups, where you can feel comfortable and creative. We have to keep chipping away [and] never accept the status quo on anything.”