FEATURE: Discrimination against women in IT all in the mind?

FEATURE: Discrimination against women in IT all in the mind?

In Africa, men seemingly dominate the fields of software programming, IT, business analysis and consultancy. Charlene Tshitoka and Chimwemwe Sichali of ThoughtWorks ask whether women on the continent feel they have more to prove and what role African men play in preventing their daughters from studying and entering IT professions.

“At ThoughtWorks, I’ve has the unusual experience for a software developer of participating in meetings in which members of the client discuss with our team the project’s progress and, jointly, trigger new ideas. In the process, the only discrimination I’ve experienced has been in my own mind,” said Tshitoka, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

“I find myself thinking that I don’t deserve to be talking here and that what I say is not going to be as good as when a man says it. I have to work all the time on overcoming that fear.”

Tshitoka was one of 11 Congolese learners to win a Tshwane University of Technology scholarship in Pretoria. She married an electrical engineer. “He’s a geek too, so he understands my passion for technology,” she said.

She said she always got support from men within her profession, but had to overcome considerable resistance from her older brothers, who told her that no man would be romantically interested in a woman who spends her time on “technical stuff.”

However, Tshitoka’s success has changed their perception, but some of her brother’s daughters still believe studying within a ‘male orientated’ field such as computer science will negatively impact their chances at being “exemplary women in society”.

Sichali’s story is different in that she did not experience any family discrimination or resistance against her interest in IT. However, some of her friends considered her career choice as odd.

She initially considered medicine or teaching, but changed her mind upon discovering there was a lack of females within the IT world. While she did not experience gender discrimination from her clients, some of her male counterparts were hesitant regarding her capabilities.

She refers to an incident involving an interviewer, whom she had to put at ease through demonstrating she understood the technology he was talking about in the interview.

“It was interesting that he did not take for granted that I had the credentials for a job I applied for and for which I had submitted my CV and references,” said Sichali.

Sichali believes the issue of African men preferring stay-at-home wives, which is raised often, needs to be addressed from a perspective of balancing work and life, because she manages as a mother, a wife and keeping abreast of technology.

“There’s no need for self-sacrifice. For instance, had I not moved from Malawi when my husband took a job in South Africa, I wouldn’t have encountered ThoughtWorks and experienced an entirely new way of developing software as well as managing projects,” said Sichali.

She added: “Instead of the layers of hierarchy I’ve been used to in other organisations, at Thoughtworks I am part of a much flatter structure, a much more distributed leadership style. ThoughtWorks also consciously chooses a diverse culture, all of which is extremely empowering – for everyone.”

Sichali organised a forum in Malawi for women interested in IT, and are introduced to new open source technologies. The forum has grown to include a number of other African countries.

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