African women in technology



This week on wisinomad Dialogue Series, we are joined by Roina Ochieng, a Kenyan young woman currently working as a Developer Success Associate at Africa’s Talking. Join us as  she chronicles her journey into the Kenyan tech scene as an African woman


Roina’s entry into the Kenyan tech scene is atypical by her own admission. She got started quite early as her father was a software engineer in the financial industry. Her curiosity led to her father teaching her more about C# and programming in general, and naturally led to her choosing a college degree with strong links to her passion. But she came to find out that the tech scene wasn’t particularly designed with women in mind. She was only one of five girls in a class. Universities were designed under the implicit assumption that not many women would opt for STEM majors and that the odds were stacked against her as a woman, even within academic institutions.


But she notes the change came as major software companies were investing in women in tech programs. And that was a welcome light for her, as she could get to see other women who had experience in the tech world come forward, something she hadn’t seen prior. That gave her a template for what she could term successful female African software coders. She took time to participate in programs targeted at women and girls interested in developing tech skills, leaning on them as support systems. As there is an abundance of such forums in Nairobi, she thinks it is a positive direction for Kenyan women looking to be involved in tech.


She credits the structure of Africa’s Talking as being good for women who work there. With a workforce of about hundred, and a nearly even gender split, Africa’s Talking allows employees to switch roles as their interests evolve in their time in the company. And women are highly visible within the company, which has given her further confidence that technology will look better with more women participating and being appreciated for their talents.


“Her parting advice for aspiring women in tech to build their skills is to not be afraid as it is a space to grow. And more importantly, a lot of people have already blazed a path ahead for them.”


The challenges of a woman in the tech field


As an influencer in her own right, Roina has had time to study some of the challenges women face in entering the tech scene. A whole generation of women missed the possibility of working in tech, given prevailing attitudes that existed in the past. Stereotypes held fast, and led to defined STEM subjects and careers being the exclusive domain of men. She recalls an article that showed universities didn’t fathom any women joining Science and Engineering faculties and therefore made no accommodations for that to happen.


Similarly, employers discounted the chance that women had the skills to work in the tech sector and automatically concluded they were applying for secretarial and operational roles. And she thinks that parents still retain these old ideals, and don’t see women as capable in STEM and discourage them from pursuing these. She scoffs at media portrayals that tend to make female coders as scruffy and unkempt, thus making them losing their femininity in a sense. This is not accurate at any rate as women can retain whatever qualities they desire, and still be great coders.


Women in tech in the african context


The African context does make things more complex, as there haven’t been many localized black Kenyan women who are viewed as role models the same way as Ada Lovelace or Grace Hopper. There might be there, but have yet to be celebrated in order to serve as further inspiration. So stereotypes and gender roles continue to persist, contributing to more prejudice for people who deviate from expectations.


Not surprisingly through her work, Roina finds herself as a role model for some other women. She believes her assertiveness has sparked some of this.


To Roina, Wonder Woman was not the star in her movie, but rather Dr. Poison was the real star. Especially because she knew a lot about science and was driven to break the mould. As she plays the role of a super villain, she is unlike the way women tend to be portrayed as well-behaved in order to be successful. Dr. Poison is remembered not for her looks or poise, but rather her mind and methodology. And this draws comparison with Wangari Maathai, a real-life Kenyan hero who sought to make life better for all, even if it meant being physical, thus influencing change through unconventional means.


Her parting advice for aspiring women in tech to build their skills is to not be afraid as it is a space to grow. And more importantly, a lot of people have already blazed a path ahead for them. In terms of sources of support, she drew from peers who have surmounted similar challenges. Organizations like Systers are built to specifically be the support systems for women in tech, and encourages women to take advantage of such.


“A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Sail out to sea and do new things.” – Grace Hopper


Wisinomad is determined to promote women empowerment across the African continent by bringing together people and institutions which promote such.

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