Over the weekend, the Women Of The World Festival took place at London’s Southbank Centre. Women from all corners of the globe got stuck in conducting workshops, chairing panel discussions, giving lectures and provoking debates about the role of women around the world. Inspiring doesn’t even begin to cover it.
One panel of particular interest was Using Tech To Solve Gender Problems and featured on its line-up three incredible women – and one incredible man – all of whom are harnessing the power of tech to change the future of women, from Accra to Guildford. There was Dr. Elina Berglund, an alumna of CERN, whose app Natural Cycles is the first to be approved as contraception; Mariéme Jamme, creator of IamtheCODE, an organisation aiming to teach one million women to code by 2030; Tom Ilube, founder of the African Science Academy in Ghana for talented young women across Africa; and Mary Anne Cordeiro, a leading biotech entrepreneur. Safe to say, it was an intimidating line-up.
Mariéme Jamme was born in Senegal but, when she was 14, was trafficked to Paris for sexual exploitation. Thankfully she managed to get out and, from 19, learned how to code in seven languages in two years. She now firmly believes that the way to gender equality lies in tech. “It is a global problem,” she says, “not just an African problem.” In fact, she says Africa is soon going to be leading the way. "Africa is resolving its own issues...I see women in Senegal coding e-commerce sites. Our girls are making apps, we can’t keep up with them in science and literacy.” In the UK, she says, women aren’t being invested in in the same way. “I will not give up until women in Guildford are coding, too!”
Tom Ilube's aim is to find and nurture talented girls in science and maths. There are, he says, 250 million women under the age of 15 on the African continent. Statistically, he says this means there’s an estimated 10,000 young women in Africa with Einstein levels of intelligence who are not currently being given the opportunities to showcase their talent. “We’re trying to find them,” he says. “We want to help them on their way to the next stage.” After three months of being at the school, his first set of students took their Maths A-level. They all got As.
Dr. Elina Berglund, a particle physicist by trade, worked at CERN on the Higgs boson before creating Natural Cycles. The app works by monitoring the user's temperature and is hormone-free. She echoes Melinda Gates in saying that no country ever reached equality without getting access to contraception. For continents like Africa, where smartphone usage has doubled in the past two years, and countries like India, where the number of smartphone users will surpass the US this year, the implications that this app could have on women are huge.
Mary Anne Cordeiro has worked both in the City and in biotech. She’s currently in the process of setting up the Dorothy Hodgkin Project at Somerville College in Oxford, which is named after Britain's only female winner of a Nobel Prize for science. Dorothy Hodgkin used part of her prize-winnings to fund a creche at her college so women wouldn’t have to quit their research due to motherhood. This new fellowship will aim to make it “easier for women to return to research after taking a career break”.
The panellists face challenges every day. The male to female ratio in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) industries looms large, with women making up just 14.4% of the workforce. It’s a problem from the highest levels of business – where Mary Anne warns that the "95% white males" make it hard to get women’s entrepreneurial projects off the ground – down to entry level, where Tom says he struggled to convince African fathers that their daughters should be studying science and maths. “A lot of girls don’t tell their dads.” One father, he recalls, was very unsure about his daughter attending the ASA. However, come the end of the year, during her presentation, her father was in tears – he couldn’t believe the confidence and transformation. “He let us know that he has six other daughters, too,” laughs Tom.
Attitudes and representation are changing, though. On Friday, Sweden mandated that children will be taught coding from first grade – something which Elina hopes will help make up for the surfeit of female-centric problems that tech needs to solve. At the moment, she says, women only solve women's problems but that's because "men don't think of women's problems". She says women solving non-women's problems will come but at the moment there’s a huge deficit to make up. “I’m only doing what someone should have done 20 years ago,” she says of her app.
Most important in order to keep the fight going, all the panellists say, is tenacity from the women themselves. Women need to believe they deserve to work in tech. "Huge numbers of men know they're not qualified to be there," says Tom, encouraging the mainly female audience to turn up, and keep turning up until we get our feet firmly through the door.
“Being yourself is the most important thing," says Marieme. “I don’t have an education but I use that as my power. You need to work hard, don’t be afraid of being visible, if you have something to say, you have to say it."