Breaking tech's glass ceiling in Africa - a young woman's story

Monday October 9 2017

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Last week, Mauritius hosted the 12th edition of the e-Learning Africa conference, and of all the keynote speakers, Patricia Ngoy stood out. 

In her 30-minute speech, she narrated virtually all the difficulties young women scientists face in their workplaces.

At only 28 years, Patricia has seen it all, and still has the energy to fight for what she believes is her calling. She has big dreams.

After enduring discrimination in the all-male engineering department of one of Africa’s telecommunication companies, she now wants to build her own telecom company, to be run by women only.

Patricia was born in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As she started her primary education at Malula Primary School in Kinshasa, war broke out. Her father was killed in 1998 and she and her mother fled to Benin as refugees. 

Her mother worked hard to educate her, encouraging her to focus on the sciences. On her part, she excelled and joined the French University, Esgis, in Benin. 

Patricia in her office in Kinshasa (left), and with the author in Mauritius (right).

Patricia in her office in Kinshasa (left), and with the author in Mauritius (right).

Being the only woman in her class of 31, Patricia wanted to give up but her mother insisted she continue with her studies, assuring her that more women would join. One more woman later joined the class.

However, she did not stay for too long, leaving Patricia to soldier on alone, before later, she joined Bangalore University in India to study Electronic Engineering. 

She had the opportunity to work for Alink Telcom, a large Internet Service Provider with branches in 13 Francophone countries, and had a stint as a systems analyst in Isocell and other various telecoms companies.

Despite changing jobs, she was always dissatisfied with the way she was treated as a woman engineer.

It wasn’t just her workmates who chided her. Customers would call for assistance and when they heard a woman’s voice, would ask, “Is there anybody with you who could help me?”  Such questions came through even when she told them that she was the engineer. 

No matter how hard she tried to bear it, the work became simply unbearable.  She took the bold step of leaving formal employment to found Biccolo Networks, which is dedicated to helping women succeed in technology. 

She uses her networks to connect senior IT professionals to young, inexperienced workers or job seekers for a mentor/ mentee relationship. She called her start-up Biccolo (a tiny West African musical instrument that makes the greatest noise) as a vow that she would not to be silenced.

But it was a non-profit and she needed money. So she started another company, Kiongozi, meaning ‘leader’ in Swahili, a name her Swahili-speaking mother suggested to her. 

Kiongozi offers practical training in coding, software engineering and networking to young girls as an incubator for gender equality in Africa’s digital world in Africa. 

The company has offices in Benin and the DRC. She is slowly expanding her services to eventually achieve her dream of starting a fully-fledged telecommunications company within the next 10 years.

Patricia was appointed ambassador for Africa Code Week, and she is actively engaged in teaching youth digital skills. She believes that young girls must be introduced to digital literacy at an early age to fight women's unemployment.

She also believes that women must fill the gap in the digital workforce that weighs down Africa's growth and economy. With her work, she has impacted the lives of many young girls and women who are now in various tracks of STEM.

Well aware of the challenges ahead, and anxious to see real change in Africa, Patricia says that she can talk her way to success. 

“I pull people when I talk”, she tells me. She is cynical about African Union’s Vision 2063, opining that none of these leaders talking of 2063 will be around then to be held accountable.

“I don’t want to hear long term plans. We need short turnarounds in terms of planning”, she says. 

UNSOLICITED ADVICE

Many of the delegates want to talk to her but she is determined to finish the interview with me.  A Mauritian lady interrupts to ask where she can get a dress as beautiful as the one she is wearing.  “Oh this, the tailor has to take your measurements,” she says. 

I tell her that that is one of the biggest problems we have in Africa. We have not standardised our textile production, and perhaps she needs to tell her tailors to think of mass, standardised production and to ship their designs in standard formats. “We shall try, but we are not used to that form of trade”, she concludes. 

I take a few moments to give her some tips on entrepreneurship based on our discussion and advise that even her training program must be standardised into specific modules.  That will make it easier to scale them to other countries in Africa. “You cannot have special products for each country that you invest in”, I say. 

“I will try”, she noted as we switched back to the policy interventions required to help the African woman.

Amid interruptions by delegates she tells me that “African governments need to involve the youth in policy making.”  Wondering if this wouldn’t end up as yet another public relations exercise, I ask if what she means is that all policies must be subjected to public participation. She agrees.

At my age and station in life, I could not resist giving some often unsolicited advice: “Do not get carried away by your ability to move people by your speeches to join politics to justify youth involvement in decision making.  You have a powerful platform that you can leverage on to create a better future for the youth.  Through Biccolo, you can make the greatest noise and create co-working spaces, incubation and entrepreneurial acceleration space to impact many lives. Political leadership in Africa is centred on money, corruption and treachery.”

LESS 'AMBITIOUS'

Patricia is not alone as an intelligent, ambitious woman genuinely trying to make a change in her part of the world.

Although we have made tremendous strides in putting women in positions of leadership and giving them a level playing field here in Kenya, there is a lot more to be done.

Perhaps because of socialisation, women tend to be more honest and less ‘ambitious’. These are excellent virtues, but they are often not welcome in a “man’s world.”

How many times have we heard male board members moan desperately about the women on their boards who “can’t keep their mouths shut?”  

Because the business world is generally “thuggish” in nature, most women will not be seen to want to play ball, and it makes men rather uncomfortable.

This is perhaps the biggest cause of women’s inability to break the proverbial glass ceiling. Women leaders are expected to put in as many, or more, hours in the workplace to the detriment of their home and family lives.

This need not be so. There should be policies in both private and public sectors to enable women to work around their family schedules. Some organisations with women leaders have been ranked as most successful, with the happiest staff.

It is astonishing that some organisations in Europe were asking their female employees to have their eggs frozen so that they can have children later.

NEGATIVE POPULATION GROWTH

All they were interested in was that they had a captive workforce for the time they needed them. How horrifying! And more so that women can agree to such an arrangement.

Isn’t it ironic that parts of Europe suffer from negative population growth and contend with an aging population, with few young people to support the older ones?

It is no wonder that some countries want to increase the retirement age to 70!

We must stop holding the woman’s role in society with contempt – as if bearing children and wanting to look after them is something to be looked down upon.

We do this all the time, yet complain that our social and moral fibre is breaking down. Don’t both men and women need to play their relevant parental roles?

Women have always been adept at multi-tasking and can chair a board meeting while nursing babies. They are usually (much) smarter at it.

So why do we want to play half the team when we can use all the skills we have to our advantage? Women can also stretch meagre resources like no one else can.

BACK TO BASICS

How many of us were brought up by “uneducated” mothers, who, in their wisdom, planned meals for weeks, months and even years ahead, arranged duty rosters for their many children, disciplined them, carried out arbitration between warring siblings, were engaged in extra-curricular church and other activities, weaved baskets, knitted sweaters, amongst other activities?

These are critical managerial and leadership skills, desperately needed in offices and boardrooms today. They come naturally for women. Let's use them.

The recent legislation passed in France that prohibits employers from victimising staff for not answering official phone calls and emails after working hours is testament that we need to go back to basics.

We need to spend time with family and unwind, to improve our creativity. Such initiatives should be adopted in our region, as they would help women to serve in high office.

We are all aware of these anomalies but seem to be completely impotent to correct the situation.  There are many Patricias out there, but until we utilise their full potential, economic development will continue to elude Africa.

The writer is an Associate Professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito