When Gatekeepers Become Allies, Everybody Wins

Having migrated much of our lives online this past year, it can be hard to remember that roughly half of the world isn’t online or digitally savvy enough to access 21st century jobs. These numbers increase drastically as we zoom in on women and other excluded groups. As part of our series on the future of Gender justice, social entrepreneur Regina Honu walks us through how to create opportunities for thousands of women to thrive in the tech work force.

Zeynep Meydanoglu: Soronko Academy, your organization, offers tech trainings for women, but it’s about so much more than that, right?

Regina Honu: Yes. It’s not enough to train women in digital skills, we want them to use these skills to solve a problem, better their lives, or contribute to society. It’s about connecting women to dignified and fulfilling work. To that end, we’ve set up a business that is run by the women trained at the Soronko Academy. It’s one thing to learn something in a classroom setting and another to be able to meet customer deadlines, to speak up, to be confident, to be able to negotiate. So we simulate those experiences. And the profits from this business are used to train more women through our foundation. Over the years, we have become the go-to place for any organization looking to recruit women into their tech companies. At the policy level, we are also bringing our expertise to a national campaign called “TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training Role Models.” We are shaping the creation of an Information Communication Technology (ICT) body in the country and working with Mastercard Foundation as part of consortium of partners in the Young Africa works project to ensure that 2.1 million Ghanaian women connect to dignified and fulfilling work.

Meydanoglu: What does dignified, fulfilling work look like?

Honu: It includes economic empowerment, self-development, and community contribution. It starts with being paid fairly for our work. A woman can be an economic force, just like a man. In Ghana, as a young girl or woman in some communities you are socialized to take what you are given. It is disrespectful to ask for more. Teaching women and girls how to negotiate is critical in that sense. For work to be dignified, you also have to be able to express yourself at work. Are your voice and contributions valued? Do you see that you can affect change? Are you allowed to grow as an individual?

Meydanoglu: How has Covid affected the Soronko Academy?

Honu: We have seen a huge jump in demand for our work. We typically have 200 women apply for our programs, and in our last national campaign we received 2,500 application. Covid got more people to understand that digital is now. For those who weren’t sure they were ready to jump in, especially women and girls, Covid really showed them they can’t survive if they don’t have essential digital skills.

Meydanoglu: How do you bridge the digital divide?

Honu: We are very intentional about connecting the unconnected. Making sure the internet is affordable for everyone is part of that. The way we are scaling is an important component as well. There are several hubs across the country that need support in terms of programming and resources. Instead of going into a particular place and setting up shop ourselves, we find an existing organization that works there, and we partner with them. We bring in our expertise with digital content, programming and train the trainers.  Our partners on the ground build the trust and networks with women and girls. We make sure to find partners even in those hard-to-reach areas. Our alumni network of women who want to give back in their own communities also allows us to spread our work without a very heavy capital investment. We become the body that splits into smaller groups and goes to places that we cannot reach alone.

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Meydanoglu: How did you become the go-to place for recruiting women in tech in Ghana? What’s the secret sauce?

Honu: We take time to understand women where they are now. We constantly ask ourselves: How do we shape our programs to be convenient for them and remove the obstacles that get in the way? How do we sustain engagement over long periods of time?

For example, we offer counselling because we understood that women go through all sorts of trauma, but there are no outlets to have a conversation. Many women arrive to us broken, and it’s hard to help a woman if you don’t help her heal.

Meydanoglu: You warn that sometimes “women’s empowerment programs” can do more harm than good.

Honu: We always say to large companies who want to get involved, don’t go for the grandiose gesture with no follow up. A bootcamp or hackathon or a training program for a week will not create empowered, technologically savvy women. When a community doesn’t understand what an empowered woman is, and she doesn’t have a support structure, she often ends up in a worse off position than when she started. A woman might leave a short training and decide “I want to assert myself,” and then get the beating of her life or the yelling of her life. This just makes her think she shouldn’t try again. Our work requires long-term commitment.

Meydanoglu: So how do you prevent such setbacks?

Honu: As we empower women, we have to understand and inform the communities that they are going back to. When we worked in a Muslim community, for example, we had to figure out how to reach and connect with the men. That meant going on the radio to do a program targeted at men or having discussion groups with just the men. We have to always understand the ecosystem we are in and bring in community leaders. Whether it’s a pastor, an imam or a chief, when community leaders say something, everybody listens. Recognizing that women and teachers can be the gatekeepers of patriarchy, it’s very important to bring them along as well.

The other piece is to sell the value to the community. When it comes to women and girls, many parents simply want to find a rich husband for their daughters. It is what they know and understand. When we started training children, we would tell parents: “If you allow your daughter to come to this training she will help you create a website for your business or help you with an app that will drive sales.”

Everyone must be part of the success.

Meydanoglu: What keeps you optimistic?

Honu: Across the world, we are seeing more women take positions of power, and it is a good time to keep the momentum going. The U.S. just elected their first female Vice President. In Ghana’s elections there were three Women on the ballot box. It’s never happened in our history! We’re breaking all those glass ceilings. Let us take advantage of this change. Let’s celebrate the progress. We have to intentionally share these stories to keep that positive energy and let more women and girls know what is really possible.

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Regina Honu is a social Entrepreneur, software developer and founder of Soronko Solutions, a software development company in Ghana. She opened Soronko Academy, the first coding and Human-centered design school for children and young adults in West Africa. Regina became an Ashoka Fellow in 2014 and was featured on CNN as one the 12 inspirational women who rock STEM, among many other accolades.

Zeynep Meydanoglu is the Country Co-Director of Ashoka Turkey, and the field leader of Next Now/Gender. Prior to Ashoka, Zeynep led civil society strengthening initiatives and contributed to Turkey’s women’s movement in organizations like TUSEV, KAMER and Purple Roof Foundation. 

Next Now: Ashoka’s Next Now highlights innovations in areas ripe for transformation, including Tech & Humanity, Aging and Longevity, Gender, and Planet & Climate. This series sheds light on the wisdom and ideas of leaders creating an equal world for people of all genders. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of the series.

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