Breaking down barriers: benefits and challenges for Caribbean women in ICT
For Girls in ICT Day, which is commemorated on 27 April, ICT Pulse Publisher, Michele Marius, shares some thoughts on being a woman in tech.
Although it may not seem to be the case, the ICT/tech space in the Caribbean region is awash with opportunities. There is considerable potential for innovation and wealth creation, and to position of the region as a force to be reckoned with on the global stage. However, it requires all our citizens – men and especially women – to be engaged and participate in the process.
Over the past five years or so, there have been a growing number of initiatives to highlight and nurture innovation and entrepreneurship in the tech space. Some that readily come to mind are Kingston BETA and Startup Weekend Jamaica, organised by Ingrid Riley of the Connectimass in Jamaica, the OECS Business Solutions Think Tank and Hackathon, led by Telojo Valerie Onu, Startup Weekend Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean Open Data Conference and code sprint, and the CANTO (Caribbean Association of National Telecommunications Organisations) Hackathon.
In addition to Riley and Onu, there are only a few women such as, Bernadette Lewis, Secretary General of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union, and Dr. Kim Mallalieu, of the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, who have some regional visibility as women in ICT. However, I am not yet sure whether a larger crop of younger women who will be joining our ranks to leverage the opportunities that should emerge in the ICT/tech space.
It all starts in the classroom
Although I had not given it much thought before, upon a quick review of the evidence to date and even to some extent my own experience, being a woman in the ICT field might not be for the faint of heart. For many of us, and to a fair degree, it has been a solitary, but exhilarating, journey. In my undergraduate engineering class, out of 100 students, a handful, no more than 10, were female. By the time I pursued postgraduate studies, and in a class of 10, I was the only one.
Throughout most of my schooling, including my undergraduate studies, a girl was either the top of class or among the top three, which, without a doubt supports the view that girls have the same aptitude as guys for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. However, a challenge to which young girls might be subject, is the still lingering notion that ICT or technology-related jobs are technician roles that require physicality and strength, and so should remain the purview of males. In fact, the technology field is so broad that while there might be jobs that do require heavy lifting, playing to men’s physical strength, there are scores of others, such as in the design, programming, analytics and engineering spheres, for which, at the very least, women are equally capable.
To its credit, today’s Caribbean society does not castigate girls and women who pursue careers in ICT. Due to international initiatives, such as “Girls in ICT Day”, which is held annually on 27 April, there is a growing awareness and effort to try to get more girls interested in that field. For us women, who are in ICT, generally, people are surprised that we work in that field, but nevertheless have expectations of “great things” from us. That attention/reaction can be intimidating to many, who want to fly under the radar and not draw undue attention to themselves.
The hardworking wallflower often get overlooked
Frequently, this modesty in the workplace is a result of the way in which girls have been, and are still being, socialised. In the immortal words of Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, women tend not to ‘lean in’ at the office. Hence we are happy to be part of a team; we are reluctant to lead; and though we hope someone will recognise our effort, we are prepared to let others take the credit for our blood, sweat and tears. While this behaviour might be useful in the family – in our roles as sisters, wives and mothers – all too often we carry it into our professional lives, where inherently, the rules are different.
Having said this, being a woman in a male-dominated field can be a distinct benefit, as it does allow us to stand out against all of that testosterone(!). The odds are that at meetings or among a group, a woman will be remembered, especially if she is prepared to participate in the discussions and network. Ultimately, it is about leveraging our current scarcity – as women in the tech industry– to our advantage.
Time and again, many techies, the majority of whom are men, are pleasantly surprised that I, a woman, am the Publisher of ICT Pulse. They tend to be generous with their praise of the quality of work being done and the value it is adding to the local and regional tech knowledgebase.
Among a team primarily comprising men, being a woman can also be an advantage. We tend to bring different insights to the table, many of which are borne out of the fact that women analyse and process information differently from men. This does not mean that we offer “girlie” or frivolous suggestions; rather we tend to offer practical and nuanced thoughts and ideas, or introduce additional dimensions that had not been initially considered, but may be valuable to the situation at hand.
Women can strike out on their own… and thrive!
Similarly, in the entrepreneurial sphere, women offering tech/ICT based products and services, is unusual, but again we possess some distinct strengths that arguably, might increase our chances of success. Although the way we have been socialised, as girls, can be a millstone around our necks, we also tend to be more careful and responsible. Thus, we likely to be more surefooted about our proposed venture, and not prepared to plunge headfirst with just a vague idea. Having said this, we can also be highly risk averse, which can cause us to stifle the growth and expansion of our businesses, which in some instances, could lead to their demise.
Notwithstanding, in being women and in having a somewhat different perspective from men, the businesses of successful female tech entrepreneurs tend to innovative. Their projects might not necessarily be flashy or sexy, but tend to offer practical solutions for real life problems, and thus very lucrative.
In summary, girls, who might still be intimidated by the tech space, have only to look at areas such as medicine, law and accounting that traditionally had been male-dominated, to see what is possible when women are prepared to break down barriers. The same can happen with ICT. However, our current crop of female students will most likely have to go beyond their own perceptions of themselves, and of the professions open to women, in order to tap into the potential, and the courage, that we already know they possess.
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