KAMPALA — As East Africa’s technology sector takes off, one group in Uganda is working to erase gender stereotypes and ensure that women are not left behind. In Kampala, the gender gap in technology is slowly starting to narrow thanks to some very smart and tenacious “Girl Geeks."
East Africa’s tech sector is booming, churning out award-winning apps and innovative mobile solutions at an astounding rate. Its young companies are hives of creativity, but one thing is conspicuously missing: women.
Ugandan software engineer Christine Ampaire, 23, said girls here are subtly pressured to study “softer” subjects from an early age. She said that parents and teachers often think math and science are too difficult for girls.
“I won’t say they think girls are stupid, they just think that the hard stuff is for boys because they are stronger. They generally assume because she’s weaker physically, maybe mentally she will not cope with the hard stuff,” said Ampaire.
But Ampaire herself knows better. Two years ago, she co-founded Girl Geek Kampala, a group that teaches women coding, content management and the skills they need to make their apps and websites profitable. They also bring successful, tech-savvy women in to speak to the students and provide badly-needed role models.
One thing Ugandan women tend to lack, said Ampaire, is confidence.
“In our class, most of the girls just kept quiet and took the back seat when it came to doing coursework and all these other things. I thought maybe if we had an environment where it’s no judgment, it’s safe for everyone to say, ‘I want to start from the beginning,’ it would be really cool,” said Ampaire.
But confidence, she added, can also come from just knowing what you are doing.
“I feel the skills are part of that whole process of building confidence. If I can write my whole app by myself, then I’ll be more confident to say I’m a girl in tech,” said Ampaire.
Girl Geek’s courses are free, held in facilities donated by an IT company and a tech incubator. Ampaire estimates that they have trained around 150 women so far.
Similar programs have sprung up in Kenya and South Africa. As more women are trained, the gender gap in Africa's tech sector is shrinking. Ampaire said several years ago, when she went to tech events, she would know every one of the few women there.
Now, she sees more and more new faces.
“That kind of excites me. I’m like, ‘Wow, we are growing.’ The gender imbalance is still high, but you can see the difference. The change is happening,” she said.
It is happening within Girl Geek as well. Joldeen Mirembe joined as a trainee, unsure that she had what it takes to write code. Now, two years later, she helps lead the group and teaches classes herself.
Africans are eager to embrace technology, said Mirembe, and the continent is full of talent waiting to be discovered.
“Everyone here is so hungry to get these things and understand them. They just need to be given the opportunity, especially the girls. They can be as good as anyone out there, given the opportunity,” she said.
For Ugandan women to truly succeed in tech, said Ampaire, they need to create these opportunities for themselves, because no one else is going to do it for them.