In the third of our five features celebrating Ada Lovelace Day and prominent women in science and technology across the world, we speak to Oreoluwa Somolu about empowering young women in Africa to engage with technology and pursue careers in science and technology.
Ada Lovelace Day, marked yesterday across the world, is an annual celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).
Oreoluwa Somolu Lesi is the Founder and Executive Director of the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC). Somolu worked for several years in the United States at an educational non-for-profit organisation on a number of projects, which explored the interplay between gender and technology and which sought to attract more girls and women to study and work in science and technology-related fields. She has a Bachelors degree in Economics from Essex University, U.K, a Master’s degree in Analysis, Design and Management of Information Systems from the London School of Economics & Political Science and a Certificate in Applied Sciences from Harvard University’s Extension School. Her interests are the applications of technology in improving lifelong learning and also to raise the economic and social conditions of people (especially women and children) in the developing world.
Somolu also has some research experience, which includes working on the Gender Equity in Math and Science (GEMS) project, while working at the Education Development Center in MA, U.S.A from 2001 to 2003. She is a 2014 Vital Voices Lead Fellow, 2013 Ashoka fellow and a recipient of the Anita Borg Change Agent Award for her commitment to issues of women in computing in Nigeria.
It was while volunteering in a downtown Boston community centre and women’s shelter, that Nigerian-born STEM enthusiast Oreoluwa Somolu realised the severe lack of awareness around the benefits of using technology. Every day she would teach women and children from across different parts of the US city how to use computers, answering questions and offering guidance on web design and basic programming. It would often surprise her how “mysterious” computing was to many, but made her fully grasp the profound impacts technology could have on people’s lives.
“I naively expected everyone to be able to use a computer as this was America, but found that to be far from the truth,” remarks Somolu. “It was an eye opener to the real world, where more women and people from ethnic communities considerably lacked computer skills. Some had never turned on a computer before, let alone knew the benefits. It was so empowering to see women return to the centre a few months later to report they had found a job as a result. They had a new found self-confidence.”
Somolu had herself only found out the benefits of using technology by chance while waiting for her university entrance exam results. With a computer school close to her house in Lagos, Nigeria, she decided to sign up for the longest course on offer. “I was fortunate to have a computer in my home growing up as my parents, both engineers, loved to use and explore new technology. I played games and wrote stories on it, but thought that was all it was good for,” says Somolu.
Attending a computer school in the early 1990s, Somolu became hooked on the advantages of using technology and was given an old laptop by her father when she left home to start university. While studying economics in the UK, she would type up essays for other students, often the night before a paper was due.
“I would stay up all night typing and realised that even with such a simple skill, I could earn money and be financially independent, which was a very empowering feeling for me. I just wish I had known I would be so interested in computers at a younger age, as I would have applied for a computer science course.”
Economic development and empowerment
It was however enough to inspire her to study for a Master’s at London School of Economics (LSE) in Information Systems, which explored the role of technology in economic development and personal empowerment. At LSE, she would spend her spare time reading about technology policy and soon realised how few women were operating in that space. Somolu studied hard and during her Master’s looked at her home African continent trying to fathom why it was such a male dominated industry.
Following her Master’s, she spent a number of years in the US working as a research assistant at the non-profit Education Development Centre. Here she was part of a team that ran projects primarily aimed at getting more middle school and high school girls interested in science and technology. It was through volunteering outside of this at local women’s shelters in Boston that really left a lasting impression with her, as she moved back to Nigeria in 2005. On returning home, she set up a mentoring project for secondary school girls aged 11-16 years-old teaching them to blog, become more confident using the computer and learn how to use the internet.
Closing the gender gap
In 2008 Somolu’s dreams were finally realised as she set up the not-for-profit, Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC). Its aim was to firstly introduce young girls to computing, teaching all the basics. Second was to encourage them to think of pursuing technology careers in computer science and information technology. The centre also set up workshops with older women teaching them the benefits of computing both in their personal lives and at work.
Somolu had many flashbacks to her time in the US as that fear of technology was once again evident in many women. “A lot of women were very afraid to even click keys on the keyboard, it was so alien to them,” recalls Somolu. “I realised that if we were to close the gender gap in technology, we really would have to address this awareness issue at a much younger age when girls are completely fearless.”
Somolu notes that a lot has moved on since they first opened their doors to the community. In the first year workshops would revolve around basic technology, from turning on a computer, to controlling a mouse or creating a file. Now young people are becoming far more advanced with using technology, the centre has adapted its programme to teach programming, website design, HTML and video production.
Shift in mind-sets
Many of the girls come from backgrounds where role models and education are not taken for granted. In most cases, the students have never had access to a computer either at their school or at home. Despite this, Somolu believes the Nigerian government is working hard to equip state schools with some form of basic computer facilities.
“Lots of the girls who attend the centre have never seen or met a woman who is a computer scientist or engineer, so the prospect of becoming one, is not within the realms of possibility,” observes Somolu, herself inspired by her engineering parents to study physics and maths. “Technology is not an area that is portrayed as female friendly. The images you see in popular culture usually show men hunched over a computer. There has however been a general shift in mind-set to at least admitting in society that we have some inherent problems why women are not in this space.”
Somolu often sees the gender gap when she visits graduate computer science classes at universities in Nigeria. “Research shows that women make up around 20% of all ICT jobs in Nigeria and this is reflected in the education system. I’ll often speak to undergraduate classes that have no more than 25% of female students. It is discouraging and needs to be changed,” admits Somolu. “However I do believe a lot more initiatives are coming into fruition getting more women engaged and running start-ups. I think over the next few years we should see numbers gradually moving in the right direction.”
In almost seven years W.TEC has made quite an impression on the technology industry in Nigeria. From designing mobile apps, learning the business strategies of software development, to learning about digital advocacy for championing social causes, women, both young and old, have learned technology skills and literacy in an engaging and fun manner. Somolu’s key to success is through the variety of programmes the centre offers in classes, workshops, presentations, excursions, technology camps and career talks, all run by a just four staff members and volunteers.
Her successes have not gone unnoticed in recent years as she was voted in the top 10 most influential African women in science and technology by IT News Africa. If that wasn’t enough, Somolu also spends her spare time running a cyber café and bookstore in her local town. However, her focus remains solely on the progress of girls at the centre, in the hope of establishing a network of technology literate alumni and mentors.
“We’ll continue to work with girls in secondary school and follow them through their careers, providing support and close mentoring as they progress through education,” declares Somolu. “We are compiling results for all the girls we’ve worked with since starting. Many are now studying computer science, biotechnology or engineering at university, which is so rewarding to see.”
The long-term goal to increase the numbers of Nigerian women using technology productively for learning, professional and leadership activities is already well under-way. The centre is also doing research examining how African women use technology, the barriers preventing or limiting technology use, and strategies for more efficient technology use.
Somolu grins with great pride when she talks of the success stories of her students at the centre. “It is so rewarding to see our early students doing so well now. Some have set up businesses; others have imparted knowledge on their families and helped build websites. If you’d asked me whether this was possible sat back at my computer playing games as a young girl, I’d have said you were mad. I could never have imagined this,” concludes Somolu.