Ope Aladekomo on the Challenges for Women in Technology

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As a black woman in the technology sector, Ope Aladekomo has faced a multitude of challenges. The McKinsey & Company senior product manager – who participated in the Metro NY Chapter of the US National Committee for UN Women's "Technology: Powering Change and Empowering Women" panel on May 17 – has found herself bucking stereotypes for years. “When I started university I was asked what my major was,” says Ope, who moved from Nigeria to Washington, D.C., to study at Howard University. “There would always be a surprised look on people’s on face when I said electrical engineering. It was a little uncomfortable.”

This didn’t end after graduation. Ope’s first job was as a program manager at Microsoft, where she worked with the development team that was writing software for Windows. She collaborated with developers throughout the world and, more often than not, they assumed she was a man. “I would get an email and it would say ‘Mr. Aladekomo.’ Sometimes I would try to correct them, but sometimes I was just too tired,” she laughs, recalling the shocked look on their faces when they arrived at the Microsoft campus and saw she was a woman. “I always felt that, because of these experiences, I had to put it in a bit of extra effort, whether it means speaking more eloquently or making sure I do my research before meetings – just to kind of show that ‘Hey, I’m here to stay and I know exactly what I’m talking about.’” 

It’s a challenge Ope has seen her female peers repeatedly face. “You see a lot of women coming in at an entry-level positions and, little by little, you start to notice them dropping out,” she says. Part of that, she believes, is that women have trouble finding a sponsor, or someone to go above and beyond for them. “A lot of women do a good job finding a mentor,” she acknowledges. “A mentor is really someone who can talk to you, coach you and show you how to be better. What I mean when I talk about a sponsor is someone who goes a step further and who actually makes opportunities for you.”

Part of this can be blamed on the fact that many tech companies don’t have many women in top senior positions, making it difficult to connect with someone who has had similar life experiences. “It’s not impossible,” says Ope. “You can still connect, but when push comes to shove, a middle-aged white male will likely have more in common with a rising white male than a female engineer or a black engineer.”

Ope also has seen women facing challenges as they consider starting families. “A lot of tech companies such as Microsoft and Google are supportive and women can go take some time out for their family,” she says. “But there are other companies that are still lagging behind in the sense of maybe not giving enough time for maternity leave.”

Still, Ope does believe there are solutions to the challenges women face in the technology sector and says it begins with getting females interested in technology as young as possible. “You have to get young women to see it as something exciting as opposed to a difficulty,” she explains. “ As a society we tend to get guys excited about playing video games and toy cars and mechanical gadgets, while with girls it’s more about Barbies and dolls.” Ope herself had a father who was a physics professor, so she found encouragement in math and science. “He made me excited about those subjects. By the time I got to the point of choosing an engineering career, these subjects were second nature to me.” And that, she says, really is the key. “It’s about starting them as young as possible and letting them know that math isn’t something that’s just for boys. When girls realize that they’ll start to think, “‘Hey, how can I write a code in C language?’”

As women work to gain a foothold in the industry, there is also another important benefit of the relationship between women and technology – it’s opening people's eyes to plight of females throughout the world. She points to the kidnapping of Chibok school girls in Nigeria in 2014 as an example. “This type of kidnapping has occurred many times in the past in Nigeria, but the Nigerian government would often turn a blind eye,” she says. But in this situation, the availability of affordable internet in that area enabled word about the kidnapping to spread quickly across the globe. The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag spread like wildfire on social media. “Heads of states and even Michelle Obama got to know about the kidnapping and shared their disapproval,” Ope points out. “This helped to put a lot of pressure on the Nigerian government to find the girls, as opposed to sweeping the story under the rug.”

From Silicon Valley to the developing world, technology is giving women a voice – many who have never had one before. And the more women who participate in the technological world, the stronger their voices become.

 

 

Mikki Brammer