Photograph — IStock Photos

In the biographical drama film, Hidden Figures, a scene unfolds where Katherine Johnson, a brilliant mathematician, hunches over a massive desk covered in papers. Her brow is furrowed in concentration as she meticulously calculates John Glenn’s orbital trajectory by hand. This powerful scene, mirroring real-life events, celebrates Katherine’s exceptional talent and the crucial role she played in ensuring the success of the mission. “It was inspiring,” echoes June Barasa, a Technical Product Manager at Deimos, expressing her admiration. She would eagerly seize the opportunity for an insightful dinner with Katherine. Yet, Katherine’s groundbreaking work could have easily gone unnoticed. The historical figure was initially not included on the list of astronauts credited due to gender (and racial) barriers.

The film may have been a snapshot in time, but the reality it depicts persists. Globally, women constitute only around 28% of the tech and innovation workforce. This number dips even lower in Sub-Saharan Africa as only 15 percent of women hold tech-related jobs on the continent. As a woman in tech, June Barasa has witnessed this firsthand. While studying computer science in school, she found herself in a class of 30 with only five other girls. Out of those five, only two maintained a strong interest in the field. The others, initially drawn to the perceived coolness and earning potential of the tech industry, eventually dropped out and pursued easier courses. Barasa, towed the tech path to become a product manger at Deimos, an African-based Developer & Security Operations company. 

Seven years into her tech career, Barasa’s growth in tech has her overseeing the development of a DevOps tool platform called Salus at Deimos, a role she considers quite pivotal. “My background is in computer science. However, I didn’t practice computer science or software engineering. I used to work in technical and software adjacent roles as a product manager. So being entrusted with such a technical product, and the challenge that comes with it, especially being a woman in this space has empowered me and allowed me to grow in my domain and soar into more senior technical product manager roles in the future,” Barasa says. 

Her team’s support further empowers her to make daily decisions and influence the product’s direction. To Barasa, this is very important, especially at this stage of her career. “I am building that muscle where I can make decisions on the spot, sometimes very complex decisions, sometimes very tough decisions, sometimes scary decisions because the decision you make determines the direction the product is going to go into,” she notes. “These experiences have undeniably strengthened my skills, building my confidence like a well-exercised muscle. While the product (Salus) isn’t on the market yet, I am proud of the choices we have made. Making those bets, even when I’m nervous has not only fueled my personal growth but also demonstrably influenced the product itself.”

Despite growth stories like June’s, broader conversations persist regarding the representation and advancement of women in the tech industry. Recent statistics from 2023 reveal that startups led solely by female founders or with an all-female founding team secured a mere 2.3% of total funding in Africa. Conversely, teams featuring at least one woman garnered 15% of the funding. In the previous year, both figures stood at 2.4% and 13%, respectively. Motivated by these disparities, Barasa is constantly advocating for women in the industry through initiatives like GirlsCode, and collaborations with the Mastercard Foundation and Moringa School. While the International Women’s Day celebration may be behind us, the conversation around gender parity in the tech industry remains crucial. Ventures Africa sat with June Barasa to highlights her experiences as a woman in tech, and how her contributions to Deimos highlight the broader challenges women face in this ever-evolving field.

June Barasa

VA: From your experience, what would you say are the most urgent challenges women face advancing within the tech space?

JB: I can create a comprehensive list on this topic. However, I believe the most important, particularly as a woman in this field who has already undertaken efforts to bring more women into the field, is that we have not recognized the importance of creating spaces conducive to women’s growth. Over the years, I’ve witnessed numerous advocates championing the cause of women in technology. However, it often pertains to roles tangential to engineering. There needs to be more support for women growing into more technical roles and engineering roles, especially in executive leadership positions. We need to provide more growth opportunities that challenge women to build their skills. And when the women do get these positions, we need to amplify their voices so they can be role models for other women who are coming after them.

I recently saw an article spotlighting 50 outstanding women in tech that underscored this deficiency. There was a noticeable dearth of CTOs, heads of engineering, and directorial roles held by women. I can count merely a handful of women who are taking up those roles that inspire me. If there are so few for me who have been in the space, what about the people who want to get in? Who are they looking up to? What is their north star? I want to see that girl who’s going to that public school look up to someone else who went to a public school and grew into their career and got into a CTO level. For the young girls in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa in Malawi, who cannot afford to go to Ivy League schools or this Russell group institution, it is more relatable. It is saying if they got out of the hood, I can get out of the hood too.

VA: How do you see these factors shaping the future of the tech industry?

JB: First of all, it’s about diversity. Diversity and inclusion are very important. It makes the building of a product much better. Take Salus for example. It is a technical product built by engineers for engineers. Its success hinges on simplifying complexities for its target audience. It allows these engineers to be able to do what they do by just simplifying the infrastructure, cloud, the entire dev ops processes, and security. This can happen easily because it is built by engineers for engineers. Also consider this, taking a product from development to market requires testing the waters. But before diving in, you need to ask crucial questions: “Is there a market for this?” and “How do we reach our target audience? Having representatives and voices familiar with business practices across different African regions empowers your growth strategies and market scaling efforts. For instance, on my team, Nanya, who is from Nigeria, could offer insights like, “In Nigeria, they don’t typically do X, they do Y. We need to adapt the product accordingly.” This on-the-ground knowledge allows you to tailor your approach for a successful market entry.

It is the same way I see it working when you have women’s voices in these spaces. Think about spaces like fintech. If you think about women who are banked versus unbanked women, the stats say more than 50% of women are unbanked. That’s because banks are not building specific products for women. And even if they do, it is more for corporate women than the lady who is a farmer. When we have diverse voices, we can build for people who are not underrepresented. For example, if I was a farmer and I became a technical product manager and I was building a fintech product, I know what it’s like to be a farmer. I know what the hustle is. You think about spaces like health tech, or women’s reproductive health. I don’t expect someone else to come and speak about women’s reproductive health. Sure we can use research. But when it comes down to the real day-to-day experiences, different types of women would likely represent who is going to use the product better. I hate when a fitness app doesn’t take into consideration what I go through on a month-to-month basis. Better representation would give me better experiences, better suggestions and recommendations on how to take care of my health. When these things are addressed, then we can build products that solve real-life problems.

VA: We recently had a conversation with Bolaji Sofoluwe, co-founder and managing director of the business advisory firm ETK Group. During the conversation, the lack of significant progress in increasing women’s participation, despite years of ongoing conversations on the topic, emerged. Why do you think implementation has been at such a slow rate?

JB: It’s because we’re not solving the real problem. We’re solving the vanity problems. We are only trying to get the numbers in. How many women do we have in this organization? Let’s get it up to code so that we can raise money. We’re not solving the real problem in our society and the environments that women work in. For example, the barrier to entry when it comes to tech is very high for anyone regardless of their gender. But then when I think about women, it’s even higher. Recently there was an article that said that the number of women using the internet in Africa has reduced significantly this year. We should be asking why that is. It is very alarming because we are thinking about getting women into tech and the first step to that happening is becoming smaller.

The first thing we need to do is awareness. I don’t know if we’re amplifying the voices as we possibly should. Then we need to make it clear that the spaces are for women. When you tell women this is for you, they will come and they will come running. Then, we need to level the playing field for everyone. If you are advertising for a role, let’s say you’re looking for a director of engineering. And within your organization, you hope you can get a woman for the position. The recruiters know they are looking for a woman but their opening signage doesn’t say it is for women. Likely, a lot of women would not apply because of impostor syndrome or beginner’s dilemma which women tend to experience on a higher level. I’ve gone through it. There were so many times when I would just go, I’m not good enough, or I need to build that skill. Sure I may need to build that skill. But it was mostly because I was stuck in that dilemma where I felt I needed to get better to even compete with the male applicants.

The barrier to entry (for tech) is very high. Even at the most basic level. You can imagine how much it costs to just buy a laptop alone. And then you’re thinking about the cost of the internet and then the cost of the class itself and then you go into the class and it’s so technical. I think we can do a lot in terms of just getting women into the space, and just giving them the knowledge. Once they know, they can figure things out.

VA: You mentioned imposter syndrome, which is quite common, especially at entry level. How do you approach mentoring the next generation to handle this challenge and build confidence in their abilities?

JB: Imposter syndrome, happens to everybody. No one should lie to you that they’ve always been confident. Everybody experiences imposter syndrome at least once in their life. I have experienced it a lot and I keep experiencing it. But this is the thing. If you let your impostor syndrome hold you back, you’re not going to go.

You have to keep moving. Do it scared, do it, afraid, do it crying. You might be on your laptop, on your keypad and your tears are coming down to a keypad. It’s okay. I find what works for me is talking to people and just asking them, how did you get here or how did they manage to do that piece of work? Because imposter syndrome comes from comparing yourself. Talk to them and hear what their experience was going through that. That will also help you craft your journey. At least you have some kind of reference to a path. It might not be entirely your journey, but it could be a path to help you. Do it as an impostor. It’s fine. We’re all impostors until we get better at the skill you’re able to see.  Beginner’s dilemma is another issue where you don’t take steps because you think it can take you years to get there. You have to remember things don’t just become. It’s just like a tree, it grows and grows until it’s something substantial.

Also remember that as tech is growing in the African ecosystem, the barrier to entry to work is getting even higher and so is the expectation to perform. One thing that has helped me in just trying to figure out where which space I want to play and like my competitive advantage in this space is just trying to get ahead of the curve rate. Yes, tech is growing at an alarming rate. But in Africa, we are still playing catch up with the rest of the world. There’s an advantage to that and you can play to that to win. Look at future trends. It’s as simple as looking at what North America or Europe is doing, where are they investing their money? Where are they investing in research? This will then tell you what is coming next, even though it’s going to come slowly when it hits, it’s going to be the booming space. For example, the software engineering space is becoming saturated and getting a job is likely gonna be even harder for people who are coming in fresh.

Look into spaces like data. Africa has not uncovered the data space enough. We are not collecting enough data. As I’m doing research for my product, it’s so tough to get data. I usually have to use data from different regions to make projections about what’s going to happen here. That is an advantage point for people who are trying to win in this space. We can get more women into data science, data analytics, the data spaces cloud engineering as well. We are leveraging technology from the West. How about we build our own here? There’s a lot of opportunity in building things that work for us here. There is also the AI space.

Without data, you cannot have AI because AI needs the data to train to be able to become independent and build its thought process for lack of a better word. But that’s another space that is growing at a rapid pace in North America. I’m seeing a lot of work on climate change as well. But I’ve not seen a lot of work in Africa about climate change the way Europe is doing it right. We can look into that and say, what are they doing? Let me learn how to build that. That’s a very good way to stay ahead of the curve and fill the gaps – the skills and opportunity gaps.

VA: There’s been a lot of great innovation, especially in Africa. What you are most excited about in the space?

JB: The best thing about the African tech ecosystem is that it’s growing at a rapid pace. You can tell because of the number of investments and the billions of dollars of investments coming into the continent. This means that people are making bets that the innovation is likely to work and create a good impact on businesses to change the life of lives of people. I am very excited about the opportunities to build, to solve problems for our use and purpose. Not just using what people have built in different parts of the world and trying to tweak them, but looking into why these problems are here. What makes them different and what contributions can we make to improve people’s lives using technology?

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