A Woman Coder's Journey (Women-in-tech)

23 February 2017

Image source: Akirachix

Judith Owigar is a coder, a blogger and a tech enthusiast. She has worked with Akirachix, a revolution for African women and technology. She is a native of Kenya, a country off the coast of East Africa, one of its 40 million inhabitants.

Namita Aavriti: Tell us a bit about yourself, what you are doing now, what motivates you.

Judith Owigar: I studied computer science out of curiosity initially. I was studying chemistry, but when I didn’t qualify to be an engineer I decided to do computer science instead. In fact my brother encouraged me. So I did my degree, became a developer and was in user support, and worked with a lot of non government organisations. At that point I realised that there were very few women who are in developing solutions.

In one of my job sites, I met four other women and we realised we had had similar shared experiences. Either we had to work hard to prove ourselves and our capability as programmers. And even though in that particular group, women were a majority, we still needed the support we got from each other.

It was at that point that we had the idea – to support and encourage women to do technology, and even to go to the basics and support ensure that girls go to high school. Two years later, Akirachix happened – here some techies come and learn, some support each other. Though in the initial stages we focussed on technology and programming, later we also broadened our scope to science and technology education (STEM) and also to basic education in high schools. We worked with children who didn’t have access to various privileges and especially girls, we also went to primary schools and worked with all children, boys and girls, to talk to them about technology.

Though in the initial stages we focussed on technology and programming, later we also broadened our scope to science and technology education (STEM) and also to basic education in high schools. We worked with children who didn’t have access to various privileges and especially girls, we also went to primary schools and worked with all children, boys and girls, to talk to them about technology.

Our motivation was that we saw the power of technology. The ability to use technology to create solutions for existing problems, and I want to put the power in women’s hands. Women are always problem solving. And if they can program or design. they can add more value. In the process they can attract higher incomes, and so they can make decisions regarding their own lives. And that ultimately is the goal for me.

NA: You are part of several forums including Akirachix. Can you tell us a bit about these? And about what you are doing now?

Judith Owigar: I am part of forums like Django Girls, Afchix. I’m not very active in all of them, but I do play a mentorship role and advisory role. I try to always be available to make that connection. I also won the Changemaker award from the Anita Borg Institute – for being part of a grassroots organisation that was encouraging women to enter STEM careers.

NA: What is your sense of whether technology is considered a viable career for women and girls in Kenya?

Judith Owigar: The Kenyan environment and culture is predominantly patriarchal. Men are often in positions of leadership, and less space is carved out for women. In science and technology, very few women are represented and very few consider this as a career. Though the numbers have grown in recent years, but its hard to say this for sure because its difficult to get that information from schools or organisations, but I have a sense that the number is growing.

Tech is seen as a male career. Generally those careers associated with success, power, control and intellect are meant for men, and women tend to shy away from such careers. Akirachix works around this by being visible, and that is important.

Tech is seen as a male career. Generally those careers associated with success, power, control and intellect are meant for men, and women tend to shy away from such careers. Akirachix works around this by being visible, and that is important.

Very few women stand up and say – I’m a programmer, I’m an engineer. There seem to be no women in leadership and tech positions. But I have often met such women, in the course of my work. Women need to be more visible. so that girls can see themselves in such positions of power, such positions where they impact lives.

NA: What are the barriers to women in technology or even science related careers? Is there harassment or difficult work environments?

There is definitely online harassment in Kenya, but this does not specifically target women in tech careers. Cyberbullying in Kenya targets media personalities – or socialites – as they are called in Kenya. And such women experience a lot of abuse, especially on Twitter and Facebook. This perhaps adds to why women are afraid of being visible – because you see that other women who are visible are attacked and bullied.

From my experience, what happens to women in technology careers is that they are often being left out of very important projects. That is what is the quintessential experience. And you have to go out of your way to say pick me, and mostly women don’t want to do that.

From my experience, what happens to women in technology careers is that they are often being left out of very important projects.

NA: What are the problems of technology and science education? Is there a problem with language – in India for instance, just like Kenya, English is one of the official languages – but often language is a barrier because education, especially STEM, is not in the mother tongue.

Judith Owigar: In Kenya, education is provided through a mix of private and government schooling. And here is where girls’ attitude to math and science comes into place. They think it is not their subject. Many girls are not given adequate information on the courses they should take for STEM careers, and so when they graduate they are told they are not viable, because they had not taken math or physics.

They are also often taught badly. I’m kind of privileged where I was encouraged to take math and science courses, and I went to a school that did accommodate students of different needs. That is not ordinary in Kenya.

In Kenya, we have two national languages – English and Swahili. You are taught in English, and Swahili is a subject. Though language is not that much of a barrier, how the language is taught is perhaps a barrier. We have exams at the age of 14 and 18, and Kenya’s education system is very exam oriented. The teachers are not motivated, nor do they have adequate resources. Often you find that a student in std 8th has the reading experience of std2 — and obviously that student is very behind already so they will not consider STEM. The problem here is delivery of education system that is not meeting the needs of students.

Often you find that a student in std 8th has the reading experience of std2 — and obviously that student is very behind already so they will not consider STEM. The problem here is delivery of education system that is not meeting the needs of students.

NA: What is the role of culture or religion here – does that have an impact? Speaking from the regional context of India, for instance many cultural norms dictate what is considered a woman’s work and a man’s work?

Judith Owigar: It does play a role. There are certain remotes areas, like the Muslim community in north eastern Kenya, and the pastoralist community, where certain cultural norms prevail, like girls get married early, and so that limits them going to school.

NA: What kind of technology careers are open for women in Kenya? Speaking from India, there are many women who are employed by business process outsourcing, especially call centres because of basic skills in English? And for these women who have to work odd hours, one of the main problems is negotiating this with their family and a legitimate concern for their own safety.

Judith Owigar: In Kenya too, like in India, business process outsourcing (BPO) is growing. It’s not as big as in India. Here both men and women are part of BPOs, and it is considered a comfortable place for women to work in.

I was talking to other people in my field, about whether there is a pipeline of women engineers in Kenya — basically older women in the field of technology development or engineering, and we realised that there really weren’t that many. It seems even if women enter a field like this, they drop out. Or women enter as software developers and drift to project management, because it’s not as demanding. When we are looking for is senior developers, and it is very hard to find women there. They are much fewer in number than those who enter the pipeline. They may even still be in technology, but not in technical development.

I was talking to other people in my field, about whether there is a pipeline of women engineers in Kenya — basically older women in the field of technology development or engineering, and we realised that there really weren’t that many. It seems even if women enter a field like this, they drop out. Or women enter as software developers and drift to project management, because it’s not as demanding.

It is my guess that as your career as growing, often a woman is also at the stage when she is building a family – and the hours required to do that are too demanding. Relationships are equally demanding, and in all these situations women are expected to be caregivers.

But speaking of safety, that as you mentioned is a huge topic in India, even in Kenya, when I’m out of at night, safety is my key concern. When I was young and I used to volunteer, the meet ups for developers used to happen in evenings. When these meet ups stretched into late night, my parents didn’t understand what I was doing or why it was important for me to be there. But that was just when the developers used to meet. At these meet-ups the developers who congregated were all men, we were most likely the first women to be there.

This is an experience that I have carried with me into Akirachix. If we have a meet up – then we thing about the time of it, whether it is safe and if it is in the evening – is it accessible by public transport. Even if it’s a hackathon, there is security personnel nearby. Those are things we have to consider. Its become second nature – I was always think of security.

NA: In and around USA, a strike is being organised to demand diversity for women in technology fields called the Distributed Denial of Women. What do you feel about diversity in your country? What have you heard or seen about the acceptability of gender non conforming people, in such work places? Apart from gender what are the other barriers.

Judith Owigar: It is definitely harder for women who don’t fit the norm of what a woman should be, especially in STEM careers. First it is hard to be here. When we first started – it was hard to be feminine and good at your job. These were mutually exclusive. And as more women stand up, we see different kinds of women and that’s very important.

As more women stand up, we see different kinds of women and that’s very important.

One thing I read when I started working on this – the day i see a crappy female developer that will be the day we have achieved something. Because right now for a woman developer to just be there, she has to be really good.

But about gender non-conforming, I would say that Kenyan environment in urban areas – is a little open. Women can represent themselves in different ways but it’s not that open.

Class is definitely an issue, the good thing is that when you give women skills, they can transcend class. Its there when you enter and when you get jobs it kind of disappears. The main issue is that women in leadership positions in tech ecosystem are less. I gained prominence in the field of women in technology, but it is still a challenge for women to rise up in more mainstream spaces.

Right now I am consulting with UN Habitat and I am their ICT advisor for technology needs. I was encouraged to build on my skills especially through fellowships like the Acumen fellowship, that invest in a person and not in the people having or developing specific skills or careers.

NA: Through your work and journey, is there any story that has stuck with you?

Judith Owigar: When I was in Akirachix, there was this lady who was part of our training program. She came from the rural areas- and for the one year program with Akirachix she relocated in Nairobi. At that point we didn’t even have the capacity to cover accommodation and food, but she managed on her own. She started a juice selling business on – she even helped to do research. Eventually she got a loan and she got her brother to take care of the shop. Now she is on a scholarship to study in Australia, and she is studying about human resources. She was a go-getter and i am so glad we were part of the story.

For me I realised that STEM was the silver bullet. When I first started in Akirachix. I looked at how many women stuck to programming. Now I look at science and technology in any career as a tool to solve problems. Whether they do copyright law or whether she wants to do agriculture. The point is to use technology to improve your life. So my point of view has changed quite a bit …

NA: Which is why they say that coding and programming should be taught as basic skills in schools.

Judith Owigar: Exactly, yes.

For me I realised that STEM was the silver bullet. When I first started in Akirachix. I looked at how many women stuck to programming. Now I look at science and technology in any career as a tool to solve problems. Whether they do copyright law or whether she wants to do agriculture. The point is to use technology to improve your life. So my point of view has changed quite a bit …
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