The International Women's Day Theme of 'DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality' made me reflect on my introduction to the world of IT. The first computer that I ever saw was during my first trip to Africa as a 20-year-old community development student visiting my sister in Ibadan, Nigeria. My then 15-year-old nephew was playing with a Sinclair computer on their black and white television. As a very bright early-entry engineering undergraduate, I showed ignorance by not only enquiring as to what a computer was or what it could do but also why the world needed them, I was also somewhat bemused and intrigued as I watched him manipulate a strange snake-like image across the TV screen.
I was still not sure why we needed computers when I worked in an international youth programme for the Caribbean region; I was based in Guyana, South America in the mid 1980’s. I noticed real excitement on the part of my then boss, as he made plans to fly to Barbados to purchase our centre's first computer. On its’ arrival, I stayed well away from it.
I subsequently went on to appreciate the power of Word Processors; for those who don't remember those first digital typewriters which allowed us to produce, edit and then print off multiple copies of typed documents; I was able to replace the Gestetner machine and being covered in blue ink as well as stop using Tippex to erase typing errors made on a traditional typewriter.
Friends and colleagues suggested that I was an early adopter when I proudly purchased my first computer some 30 years ago. I was convinced that my then Apple Mac LCII and subsequent Apple LCIIi were the future but found the lack of interface between Apple and PCs highly frustrating as I ventured into the consultancy world. The subsequent demise of Mac's convinced me of my decision to change; (oh I wish I had stuck to my original choice and even possibly bought Apple shares!). My 29- year-old daughter and her Generation X friends wouldn't be seen using anything else these days.
I have been around long enough to personally use, and discard a staggering array of digital gadgets including video recorders, microwaves (remember the Millenium Bug?!), MP3 players, Kindles, Tablets Smart TVs and of course Alexa. Despite rapid global digital progress and Generation X and Y's consumption of all things digital; I was reminded of the Ghanian term of Sankofa (go back and get things from the past which can serve us now and in the future) recently, whilst preparing food for a baby's birthday party in Soweto, South Africa. Daily load shedding (electricity outages) has become a way of life with government officials and ESKOM continuously blaming each other for supply failures and doing little to build solar system technology and other alternative energies in townships whilst people with the least power, financial and other resources continue to suffer. The electricity went out just I was about to put the saucepan on the cooker: however quick-witted thinking by my long standing friend found me cooking Ackee and smoked snoek (fish) on an open fire; one of the world’s original technologies or wonders.
I also read about the first computer programmer Ada Lovelace who worked in the 1880s, recently; she was only recognised in the 1950's. The Obama White House Archives is a good source of the untold history of women's-contribution to science and technology. The battle for women's equal access to and recognition for their contribution to STEM continues to this day.
In 2016 I met a young Indian woman Shwetal Shah who was a vociferous advocate for women in technology; she still is. At the time I had relatively little understanding of many of the concepts she shared with me including coding; I was grateful for her early and significant next generation leadership contribution to Ubele.
I am now aware of and very excited about organisations which centre the voice of young Black women in technology such as Black Girls Code. Even though corporates are beginning to wake up to the untapped wealth of women's knowledge, skill and expertise in this sector, there is still so much to do to permanently dismantle the structural discrimination that dominates this field. Women quite rightly remain resolute in their fight for gender equity in this area; a growing network of global and national organisations offer much hope for women leaders and ordinary women making waves in this territory; their contribution can be shared and amplified during our own International Women’s month.
If you'd like to read more about the contribution of women of colour to women's history, take a look at this comprehensive guide.
Yvonne Field, Founder and CEO of The Ubele Initiative