Monday, December 7, 2015

Why We Desperately Need Women In Stem



Many think pieces have been written on this and I’m sure many of you are tired of the topic but I feel it needs to be rehashed until dramatic change occurs. Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a briefing for a hackathon that is going to be held by Marie Stopes Uganda(MSU) for a reproductive health solution. During the three-day hackathon, developers will be expected to create mobile and web-based solutions to address real healthcare challenges in sexual and reproductive health. The organization’s core services include family planning; safe abortion and post-abortion care; maternal and child health care, including safe delivery and obstetrics; diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections; and HIV/AIDS prevention.  MSU are doing a lot for their mission : ”children by choice not by chance” and are looking to technology to further the impact of their efforts. Technology, always the universal enabler.

During the briefing, though there was a good showing of women, 99% of the techies present were men. I guess you are thinking gender shouldn’t matter because reproductive health is universal. And it is. But in Sub Saharan Africa, the brunt of the challenges with reproductive health lie with women. A man can sire a child and have his life continue as it was, uninterrupted. A woman simply cannot. She’s left to grapple with a myriad of issues, made even more if the pregnancy was by “chance” not choice. Whether to keep the baby? Finances? Childcare?  Nature and poor governance have deemed it so. 

I digress, back to developing solutions for family planning. See, most interventions for family planning are for women; pills, injections, IUDs and Diaphragms. Only one (thus far) is for men; condoms. Ha! Though one would think that it makes more sense to unload a gun than to wear a bullet proof vest.The biggest challenge that Marie Stopes faces with disseminating its interventions is awareness. Now, go back to the interventions and think, how many condom ads have you seen?  
How many IUD adverts have you seen? (Dear man, an IUD is an Intra-Uterine Device. Read here) Now, as a developer, it is not prerequisite to be a sufferer of the problem that I’m solving but  I should at the very least be able to understand and empathize with this problem. And men have. Their problems with their interventions for family planning are; awareness and access. Solutions have been devised. Respectively, heavy aggressive marketing on all media (heck, I follow the Durex account on twitter) and instant delivery (see this ingenious startup that delivers condoms to your doorstep)  

Women’s problems?! *crickets*
Bu then awareness is not of just family planning interventions, even just a better understanding of one’s cycle would go a long way in helping a woman gain some semblance of control of their reproductive health. Like me, most women's period is a travelling salesman, never to occur on the same day.  But imagine, even the great big Apple doesn’t have a period calculator. HealthKit, Apple's health-tracking app, apparently thinks that its female users don't menstruate. The app, which includes dozens of metrics like blood type, body temperature and exercise, does not have a single way to track one's period. This is befuddling because the IOS operating system is preferred to Android by women. How can they ignore something so essential for women?
And this is not just about reproductive health. Every sector is lacking in technological interventions that can make a lot of women’s lives easier just because women are not at the table. Watch here as Chris Sacca, a famous VC talks about how he almost passed up an opportunity to invest in a hair services startup because he didn’t see value in it. He only appreciated it’s value after his wife told him how much she spent on her hair in a month. Then he saw the hugely untapped market opportunity sitting right in front of him. So, from healthcare, beauty, retail, manufacturing in fact all sectors, there are pain points (I like to call them opportunities) that only women can see.  And for these to get the attention they require, we need women to sit on development teams for these solutions. Unlike the saying that goes that you can only know an experience unless you have walked a mile in the other person's shoes, there are some experiences you simply cannot know by proxy. For example, I can never know or even understand the discomfort of an erection. I can try but I cannot even imagine it.
Like my mother likes to say, if men had to go through child birth, they would have found a way, a long time ago to deal with the trauma of it. Technology can and should solve many of women’s problems but we need women at the forefront to get anywhere with these endeavors. Women need to have easier lives because then we can be happier and inadvertently, everyone else will be happier. Happy women, happy homes, happy earth. We need more women in STEM. Desperately.