Guest post by Agatha Gikunda, East Africa’s Head of the Software Service Group, Intel Corporation
As we celebrate women’s day today, I remember almost two decades ago, when I moved from Nairobi to Vancouver to get my Bachelor's degree in Engineering. I was one of only a handful of women in the computer engineering program. At my first job as an engineer at Nokia, I remember a time when there were only 3 women on the second floor of where more than 100 people worked.
Those numbers have changed for the better, and we have celebrated the promotion of high-profile women to chief-executive positions at tech companies, such as Hewlett-Packard's Meg Whitman, Yahoo's Marissa Mayer, Intel’s Renée James and locally Microsoft’s Mariam Abdullahi, But overall, the number of women remains less than stellar in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers.
As more universities locally focus on getting more students to study STEM disciplines to prepare them for future jobs, we need to pay special attention to getting girls into those fields so we can have a shot at correcting gender imbalance in technology careers.
In some markets such as Asia, academic excellence is not only expected but perceived as cool. Many girls enjoy a strong start in STEM education in schools and universities, but are slowed down later in life by societal pressures to prioritize family over professional advancement.
Back home, in classrooms across Kenya and indeed most African countries, that drop-off occurs much sooner and has a domino effect — quite simply, fewer girls choose to study in disciplines where they are the minority.
Strong female role models, who can help young women discover their inner-geek cool, are important at this age. Those of us who have walked this path should mentor girls to show them the careers possible in the world of science and technology. Strong support by technology companies through scholarships and internships is also critical to building and sustaining momentum.
Not all tech industry employees are engineers and programmers. The companies employ large numbers of people who manage projects, market services and design products. Many of these jobs do not require a computer science or an engineering degree. But the proportion of women and minorities in these types of jobs is not much better than the proportion in technical positions.
Getting girls to choose a STEM education is only half the problem; keeping them in the field is the other half. A technology career can be an isolating experience for a young woman. Strong female mentors and peer-group networks are hard to come by.
Though women role models in technology fields are important, male mentors are also key. Men occupy the majority of jobs in Computer Science and Engineering careers, including most leadership positions. They can have a powerful impact in helping girls and women succeed.
On my own journey to senior executive ranks within Nokia and later Intel, I have had to find internal champions who advocated for my growth in a way that accommodated my personal needs.
A good starting point is to learn to ask for what you need personally in order to do a great job professionally. Not only does this bring down barriers for other women in the workplace but, more importantly, it helps build a knowledge base of successful ways to address these life scenarios.
As we look to change the conversation, and numbers, of women in technology, it is important to remember that long before employers ever interview women, you and I see them — in our living rooms, classrooms, science-fair competitions, scholarship applications, workplace interns.
It's the girl who is a gadget fan but has never dreamed that she could build one herself. It's the college student who wants to declare a major in engineering but hesitates over being the only woman in a class.
By showing them what's possible, we can all work to change the equation, one girl at a time.