iHub recently listed me on a “Top 5 Upcoming Women in Tech“.  I’m not sure how we were selected, but the other 4 women on the list are definitely brilliant, dynamic and accomplished.  The writer of the post, Jessica Colaco is a close friend and a brilliant, dynamic and accomplished young woman herself.  Jessica’s list got me thinking though.

A few weeks ago, an American men’s magazine published a “40 Hottest Women in Tech” list.  Obviously to any woman who works as hard as I do, this list is infuriating – it got a lot of backlash on the internet and several of the women on the list demanded to be removed from something so chauvinistic and insulting.  That being said, it makes you wonder if the article is really representative of the (tech) world and how we view the role of women? Juliana Rotich recently vented to me about conferences dominated with male speakers and then punctuated with the token “Women in [insert industry] panel” to round things off. Given how much we talk about a meritocratic “changing world”, if vulgarity is slapped all over ubiquitous representations of achievement and success, then can we still call ourselves a truly progressive civilization?

Why do we separate the boys from the girls? 

The main reason for gender segregation on the sports fields and tracks is simply that women cannot compete with men due to their physical predisposition.  This argument gets murky when we consider sports like darts, pool or foosball, where physical advantage is not key to success.  It’s interesting to note that that (perhaps due to social and environmental factors) men still outperform women in those disciples.

As a little girl, my dad spent a lot of time teaching me how to play chess.  I’d often get frustrated and say something along the lines of, “It’s not fair, you always win anyway, I don’t want to play any more.” He once tried to lure me back to the board up by saying, “OK, OK, let’s play again, this time I’ll play with my left hand.”

In the case of chess, technology and entrepreneurship, biological predisposition is definitely not a factor for success.  I can’t tell you how far back into my head my eyes roll when images like this show up on my Facebook newsfeed:

Aren’t these things too obviously hackneyed for anyone to be posting any more?  The day I launched eLimu, Dorcas Muthoni told me something glaringly obvious my mother had said to her: “There’s brains. Just brains. No such thing as a male brain. No such thing as a female brain.”  Any “scientific evidence” claiming otherwise is inconclusive, or as Dr Cordelia Fine in her book Delusions of Gender calls it, “sexism disguised in neuroscientific finery”, or “neurosexism.”

My friend Idd Salim once asked me, “Why do we have to take a picture every time a woman holds a laptop?”

For the past few years I have been working on an educational platform that I believe has the potential to reshape the way our children see the world, and ultimately encourage them to play an active role in realizing a better one.  At eLimu, we spend a lot of time thinking about the lessons we teach beyond what’s in the curriculum, beyond circling the correct multiple-choice answer in the KCPEs. I read Primary School Textbooks almost everyday. Not surprisingly, gender sensitivity is not top of the list for most textbook publishers in Kenya. So whenever students reading these books see an image of water being fetched, vegetables being cut or diapers being changed, it’s a woman doing it.  But if a tractor needs driving, a tree needs cutting or a plane needs flying, it’s a man doing it.  These images are a small part of a big message we are sending to boys and girls about what they can and should aspire to be when they grow up. The aspirational images we see and show young children everyday should be as culturally diverse as the society we want to live in.

Side note: The iHub Zoo Complex

My angry response to Idd Salim was to remind him that a woman also has to work much harder than her male counterparts to “hold a laptop.”  I’m not so sure about that anymore.  Women do face unique challenges in the workplace, but if you’ve ever worked out of the iHub, you’ll relate to the “zoo complex” when foreigners sweep in for a few hours to gasp, “ooh” and “aah” over how fantastic and intriguing it is that we are doing what we’re doing and drinking the coffee we’re drinking in Africa.

  • Yes, we are actually building something
  • Yes, it is interesting
  • No, I don’t have time to tell you “a little about it” because I am still massively underfunded and understaffed and your pathetic email introduction to someone remotely working in the same industry as me a week later isn’t going to justify 45 minutes out of my work day to chat with you and satisfy your curiosity. Yes, I have a website, go read that instead.
The “iHub Zoo Complex”

In a land plagued with problems, never underestimate the appeal of a feel-good story about a girl’s football team

Last month, I spoke at SXSW on a panel titled “Teaching Cheetahs: Disruptive Education in Africa” I was inundated with the usual oohs and aahs after the session.  I went from Texas to MIT to talk about “Innovation in Africa.”  When my friend asked me if I was nervous, I suddenly realized there was very little I could say, even at MIT to make people doubt what I was doing, why I was doing it and whether I was doing it well. I am a woman. A social entrepreneur. From Africa. In tech. There is too much of a knee-jerk liberal endorsement for almost anything I say and very little space for critical analysis and questioning even before I’ve opened my mouth.

We often don’t discern that the patriarchal pat on the head is not so different from the misogynistic pat on the bum. It is a deceitfully seductive symptom of a society which still treats women as damsels in distress. Are we really leveling the playing field, tipping back the balance of power? Is it, in the long run, valuable to pave the way for the young girls behind us with a collage of “women holding laptops?”

If there was a followup “Top 5 Upcoming Men in Tech” list, I would have grumbled for a “Top 10 Upcoming Entrepreneurs in Tech” list. And if enough women didn’t make it on that list, I would have grumbled some more. Moral of the story is: damned if you do and damned if you don’t! Certainly women have made profoundly unique political, social and economic contributions in shaping Kenya’s narrative and that should always be recognized. But let us not lose sight of the fact that in a world where gender matters, true fulfillment of equality will be when at the end of day, all that matters is what actually gets done.

Separating the Boys from the Girls

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