Bridging Ghana’s Gender Gap in STEM fields

Portrait of a GroundBreaker: Regina Honu

Regina Agyare is the Founder of Soronko Solutions, a social enterprise using technology to empower youth with a focus on increasing the presence of women in STEM fields. She has pioneered the initiative Tech Needs Girls as a movement and mentorship program to bridge the gender gap and encourage girls to pursue careers in technology. Regina’s work also includes founding the Soronko Academy, West Africa’s first coding and human centered design school for young adults. Regina is a visionary of shaping a more inclusive technology space in Ghana and beyond, and has been recognized with such prestigious awards as the Ashoka Fellowship, the Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship, and the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. On this week’s feature of GroundBreakers’ Portraits of a GroundBreaker Series, our discussion with Regina ranged from the critical importance of mentorship for young girls to the need to adapt technology curriculum to local contexts.

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Did you always see yourself as a social entrepreneur?

I never saw myself as an entrepreneur because I was a risk-averse young woman who didn’t step out of her comfort zone. My love for technology started from playing Pac-Man on my father’s computer. I didn’t envision what my passion would become because at that time I just wanted to make the game better.

Parents need to see the value of careers in technology for their daughters. If parents don’t see or know any successful women in the space, they’re not going to encourage their daughters to pursue a career in technology…. Role models are good for young girls as well as the entire community in demonstrating that women can be successful in technology.

What advice would you give to young people who want to become social entrepreneurs?

Social entrepreneurship has become like a fad and my advice to young people is not to do social entrepreneurship because it’s the new, cool thing to do. You must identify the problem you’re trying to solve and make sure your solution is sustainable and has value. Don’t be in a hurry to just come up with something or copy a solution from someplace else. You must make sure that you’re getting to the root cause of the problem and that you’re involving the key stakeholders.

As a social entrepreneur, you are a catalyst for change and should keep in mind that the change will not just be about you. You must involve as many people as possible. Social entrepreneurship is like a roller coaster ride just like regular entrepreneurship — you will be up and down and you may move forward only to move back again. Because of the passion and commitment required for social entrepreneurship, you can’t just stop. People have invested in you and are relying on you so make sure you are ready for the journey.

What is the importance of mentorship for young girls in the STEM fields?

We at Soronko Solutions are very deliberate in selecting successful women in STEM to serve as role models. These women always want to give back because they know how hard it is to be a minority and they would like to see more women in this space.

It is important for young girls to see somebody who looks like them and who is from a similar background. Young people aspire to be what is visible. Girls love fashion and makeup because they are bombarded with those visuals everywhere they go. We need more images of women in technology and women changing the narrative to get more young girls interested in the space.

Social conditioning teaches girls early on what they can and can’t do and they will likely reflect the community and background they come from. For example, if a girl’s mother is a trader then she is likely to grow up to be a trader. Mentorship opens young people’s minds to the possibilities in thinking beyond their surroundings. This is especially true for women and girls, as mentorship allows them to dream big and receive guidance on avoiding mistakes.

When we speak to young girls about future careers in technology, it’s important to provide them with role models. If they don’t know any women in the technology space, it seems that the career is just for men. It is then hard for young girls to aspire to work in technology if they don’t see women in the field and this perpetuates the stereotype of technology being a man’s field.

Parents need to see the value of careers in technology for their daughters. If parents don’t see or know any successful women in the space, they’re not going to encourage their daughters to pursue a career in technology. In this way, the visibility of women mentors in technology helps for advocacy and for pushing the agenda for diversity in the space. Role models are good for young girls as well as the entire community in demonstrating that women can be successful in technology. We can’t just have one gender creating solutions for everybody and we need more female perspectives in technology.

How have you seen attitudes and public perception around women in technology change?

In general, things have gotten better but we’re still not at critical mass. Even though there have been several initiatives championing coding and women in technology across the continent, we’ve only seen a slight increase in the number of women involved in the space. When I used to go to hackathons, there were no women. Now there are around 10 women who come to hackathons but that’s not enough. There are so many factors — it isn’t just about getting more women in the space.

More needs to happen to get to critical mass along the entire value chain and this includes women’s presence at the policy level to shape national agendas around women in technology. Even when we skill girls and they go into technology careers, what is the support system for women in those careers where women are still a minority? What will encourage them to stay in that space?

Women should not just do any technology job — we have to make sure we are connecting these women to opportunities that they are passionate about. We also must make sure that we get women into positions where there is some kind of flexibility for the work that they are doing, for example if they want to start a family. Getting married and becoming a mother brought new dynamics into my work. When I worked in the corporate world, I used to work up until 2am because I didn’t want to miss out on opportunities. I used to work Saturdays and Sundays. Now that I’m a mother and wife, I couldn’t have done all of those things in the same position. I’m still struggling to balance everything. Men in positions of power often don’t want women working for them because they think we’ll stop working when we go on maternity leave.

“As a social entrepreneur, you are a catalyst for change and should keep in mind that the change will not just be about you. You must involve as many people as possible…People have invested in you are are relying on you so make sure you are ready for the journey.”

How is this work adapted to different cultural contexts?

We adapt the program regionally and also when we do work in Burkina Faso. In Burkina Faso we translate our curriculum into French and I spent time there to better understand the dynamics of the culture and what is interesting to people there. I did several visits and interacted with the girls to get a better sense of how we should shape the curriculum. When we started Tech Needs Girls in Ghana, we used the Azonto dance to teach various algorithms. Azonto was a popular dance in one of the first regions where we started but when we moved to another region the girls didn’t like dancing as much. Dancing wasn’t their thing, so we had to adjust.

Before we do any engagements, we do an initial site visit to better understand what is of interest to people and what the girls like. Technology is already seen as a boring role for young girls so we have to contextualize the material in a way that will appeal to them. For example, if a young girl lives in a forest area with a lot of trees and animals around, giving her technology examples of smart cities and artificial intelligence is not the most relevant approach. She needs to understand how technology works with nature and how she can use it to help with her work with goats, for example. The content has to be tailored for impact and what works best for the girls. They have to be able to connect the dots.

Focus Areas

  • Advancing Gender Equity
  • Agriculture
  • Environmental Impact
  • Expanding Opportunities for Youth
  • Holistic Education
  • Holistic Public Health
  • Increasing Capacities in the Informal Economy
  • Integrated Health Care
  • Livelihood Strategies and Employment Generation
  • Maternal Health
  • Modern Slavery
  • Public-Private-People Partnerships
  • Refugee Rights
  • Technology and Social Impact
  • Transportation as Upward Mobility
  • Waste Collection
  • Geography

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