Nine out of ten Information and Communications Technology (ICT) users in Nigeria are men and men hold eight out of ten jobs in the ICT industry. In a country with an overwhelming bias against women in technology, Oreoluwa Somolu is working to bridge the gender digital divide and increase the number of women working with technology to earn a living.
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Oreoluwa is positioning women to effectively use ICT in their daily lives and to play leading roles in the technology sector by creating female-friendly enabling environments in which they can learn and work. Oreoluwa understands the need for and uses gender-differentiated strategies at the school, community, and workplace to support women entering technology-related fields.
Oreoluwa’s organization, Women’s Technology Empowerment Center (W.TEC), partners with schools to create friendly, female-only learning environments, in which young girls are taught ICT skills using the W.TEC curriculum. Oreoluwa has also created enabling environments for adolescent girls and adult women. W.TEC runs a women-only ICT center that provides childcare support and training services to those women who need it. The center is open at reasonable hours for women who must first complete household chores and is located in a safe and friendly area for females. In this center, she is showcasing how ICT skills can empower women to socialize, educate and express themselves, and gain financial independence in a flexible way that accommodates their existing roles and responsibilities.
Oreoluwa is also creating a network of successful women who use technology-related skills to earn a living. These women serve as mentors to young girls who show promise in this field, thereby creating the support network needed to overcome the isolation of women in this space. This network and W.TEC’s partnerships provide scholarship information for girls who want to pursue higher education in technology and internship opportunities to gain hands-on experience. In addition, Oreoluwa is taking care to document the success of these women to build a case for increased incorporation of women in technology education and careers. In this way, she is bridging the gender digital divide by tackling the barriers preventing women from using technology and their fear of these tools. Ultimately, Oreoluwa is dispelling stereotypes of what is gender appropriate in terms of technology-related education and careers and in doing so, opening up the world and pathways to economic success to Nigerian women.
Nigerian women are socialized to see themselves as supporters and caregivers and as a result, do not see themselves in technical or leadership roles. Consequentially, this affects the career and life paths they choose with a resulting bias against women advancing in the fields of science and technology. Although technology is more easily accessible and applicable to young women than time-consuming hard sciences such as physics or medicine, they hold less than 20 percent of ICT jobs in Nigeria. Those that do enter this space, tend to hold junior or non-technical positions. At a macro level, Nigerian women are not benefitting from the economic, educational or social advantages of ICT, which has the power to open up many opportunities for expression, connection, and income-generation.
As a result of the societal expectations of women, girl children often do not have the same opportunities as young boys to use and familiarize themselves with technology. At home, they are expected to complete laborious household tasks alongside their mothers and sisters while their brothers have the freedom and time to play and use computers for entertainment and educational purposes. Thus, girls do not learn to incorporate technology into their daily lives from a young age, thereby further fueling their fear of these tools and the perception that it is not relevant to their lives. Although they are bogged down in household chores at home, they are away from these distractions at school and have the time to pursue these opportunities. However, societal misperceptions carry into the school environment and there is no dedicated space, time and active encouragement for girls to empower themselves with these skills. The irony is that ICT skills are more adaptable, usable and flexible than those of the hard sciences and can be immediately used by girls to socialize, earn an income or educate themselves further by accessing the world of online information, without ever removing them from their household obligations.
Even in adulthood, women tend to have less access than men to ICT facilities despite the economic and social gains it can provide; from online education and self-expression to online marketplaces for their handicrafts and services. ICT centers or cyber cafes tend to be located in male-heavy or unsafe areas in which women do not feel comfortable. Given their heavy household responsibilities, women have few leisure hours and they must take their children with them since they are often the primary caregivers while the men are at work. Cyber cafes are usually not open when women can visit them or are open in the evenings when it is problematic for women to visit them and return safely home. They do not have childcare facilities to allow women to focus on the tasks at hand nor do they provide support services and training to women who need it.
These underlying societal misperceptions feed into the workplace. Women with ICT skills or who are already in the industry feel isolated and alone. Lynda Saint-Nwafor, currently the Chief Technical Officer for MTN Nigeria, expresses that she has always been one of the few women in this space from her university days (studying Computer Engineering) to her career as an Engineer at large telecoms firms. Even though she has risen to be a leader in these companies and in this sector, she was often the only woman in her department. There are few mentors and supporters for young women to turn to and this can be a severe discouragement to their ambitions.
Oreoluwa understands the need to combat societal misperceptions of women in ICT and to employ gender differentiated strategies to empower young girls with these skills. She sees that women have particular needs that must be met to encourage their participation in this space. Oreoluwa provides them with women-friendly environments to learn and work in and the support they need to advance in careers in the ICT industry or in using these technical skills in other fields. She is building a pipeline of women who are learning these skills and advancing in this field, and ensuring the documentation of their success to demonstrate that women can be powerful and necessary players in this sector. With this evidence, Oreoluwa hopes to change company HR and national education policies in favor of women.
On the supply side, Oreoluwa is working at the educational level by partnering with schools to ensure that young girls have access to female-only learning environments dedicated to the provision of ICT skills. These schools have equipment, teachers, and time committed to empowering girls with the basic skills they need to use computers and the foundational knowledge needed to advance in tech-related fields. W.TEC partners with schools to establish this program and provides the curriculum and ongoing support. This environment allows young girls to take risks and learn without fear of failure in front of male peers. In addition, W.TEC runs a tech camp for girls in secondary school who show interest and promise. These girls are then selected to attend a yearlong camp that regularly meets for training sessions on different topic areas. The girls are not only trained in hard skills, such as programming and coding, but are taught social media, video and photography editing, and web design skills as well. In this way, girls’ understand that technology opens up multiple doors for them into numerous different fields and that these skills empower them to earn income while sitting at home or at an ICT center. Tech firms like GE, Microsoft and Google have expressed support for this work, with many providing the resources needed to set girls up for success. Most recently, GE has provided laptops to all girls attending these camps so that they can continue to use and practice their new skills at home, and Microsoft has provided skill-specific training at the camps.
Oreoluwa recognizes that there are many additional barriers that prevent adolescent girls and adult women from accessing ICT centers. They are often bogged down in household chores and must bring their children along with them, which adds another layer of distraction. These centers are usually filled with men and are in areas that may be inaccessible or unsafe for women. To combat this, Oreoluwa has created a safe, accessible and female-only ICT center where women have access to childcare, training and support services. Given the resource-intensive nature of this work, Oreoluwa is looking to expand the number of these centers by partnering with existing educational campuses and women and girls’ organizations to establish similar centers at their facilities. This will create friendly, female-only environments in which women can learn and work across the country. Oreoluwa’s first goal in this regard, is to have at least one center established in each of Nigeria’s geopolitical zones. Oreoluwa sees W.TEC supplying some resources by way of support services and diesel for backup generators, but these centers will operate independently as affiliates. She has already established relationships with potential partner organizations, most promisingly with the University of Lagos, looking into scheduling specific times for W-TEC’s women-only center idea to operate within their existing facilities.
There are few women in the ICT sector in Nigeria and they often feel isolated in the workplace. Oreoluwa is building a pipeline of successful women in this field and connecting them to each other and young women who show interest in pursuing this career path. These women are not limited to computer engineers or programmers but may hold positions in which they use core technological skills to accomplish their work in different fields. Young girls are paired with these women to ensure that they have support throughout their educational and early career years. These successful women often come into W.TEC’s partner schools to talk about their experiences so that young girls have examples and role models. In this way, Oreoluwa is building a network of successful women using technology to earn a living, whether in the ICT sector or not, and this makes visible the opportunities available to young girls. W.TEC’s partnerships with large tech firms has created internship opportunities, with the potential to turn into job opportunities, for young girls at university level to gain practical experience. W.TEC also leverages these partnerships and its network to provide scholarship information and support to girls who are pursuing technology-related studies.
Oreoluwa understands the risk of getting stuck in service delivery mode, especially given how resource intensive W.TEC’s work can be. Rather than growing her own organization, Oreoluwa is looking to scale through replication. By working with interested partners and positioning them to replicate her ideas, she is ensuring the spread of W.TEC’s work. She also sees the alumni as key players to expand her network and spread the idea to new states. Oreoluwa is now thinking about the role that teachers can play in supporting and empowering young girls who are interested in this field, because teachers are in constant contact with them but are often left out of the equation. Oreoluwa is also looking to expand the educational portion of this work through the Ministry of Education and understands the importance of policy for this idea to spread. She is working with the ministry on policies that aim to increase the number of girls and women pursuing education in STEM fields. While Oreoluwa’s current focus is on the supply side of this issue, she also understands that there is a demand side to the equation. She is gaining traction in her relationship with the Ministry of Communications and Technology, which has a female minister, and is working to encourage policies that drive the demand for women in technology. For example, there are currently no quotas or laws governing the number of women in firms. Oreoluwa is also working with companies to change the hiring culture and shift the current bias against recruiting women. W.TEC has a strong measurement and documentation program that tracks the success of women in this field so that they can build the case for companies to want to hire these newly educated young women. Ultimately, Oreoluwa will consider her work a success if girls and women understand the opportunities available to them through technology, have access to acquiring these skills, and if they are creating these opportunities for other women.
Oreoluwa’s childhood in Nigeria was marked with creativity and play. Her father was an electrical engineer interested in learning about new technology. This interest rubbed off on his family and Oreoluwa recalls her and her siblings playing with the computers he brought home. Following high school, Oreoluwa registered for a diploma course in computer programming and learned enough to develop a software application that would later be used to track inventory in the family bookstore.
Oreoluwa knew she was interested in the intersections of technology, women, and economic development but was unsure how these interests came together. Following her undergraduate degree in Economics at the University of Essex, she pursued a postgraduate degree in Information Systems at the London School of Economics & Political Science. It was here that she had her first realization that would later influence her choice of work. In order to make extra money, Oreoluwa used her computer to type other students’ essays who could not type. Sitting in her pajamas and typing away one morning, she realized how easy and flexible it was to earn money by using even the most basic of technology skills.
Oreoluwa attended Harvard Extension School to obtain a qualification in Multimedia Studies and Technical Writing. She extended her stay in the US after her studies and worked for the Education Development Center in Boston as a research assistant in their Gender, Diversity and Technology department. Through this work, Oreoluwa realized the vast gender inequities that persisted in STEM fields across the world and began to think about the barriers that prevented women from participating in the tech field in her own country, Nigeria.
With these ideas brewing, Oreoluwa returned home to work. She began a side project that was dedicated to helping young women to build community through online expression and blogging. Through this project, Oreoluwa was invited to Kenya to replicate this idea. She soon quit her job at a large oil and gas firm to pursue her interest in women’s empowerment through technology. Oreoluwa registered W-TEC with a small grant in early 2008 and since then, has worked to break down the barriers preventing women from accessing the social, educational, and economic benefits of ICT skills and technology-related careers.