By Marissa Lang
Enough was enough.
After years of watching the Miss Rwanda beauty pageant overtake the nation, a group of young women decided they were sick of it.
With the pageant playing on a TV nearby, they looked around the room at each other. All of them were successful and smart. Most worked in tech, some had started companies.
Why are we still praising people just because they’re beautiful, the women asked each other.
Frustrated, they began to brainstorm alternatives.
“We should have someone called Miss Geek instead,” one said. “We should value them because
of their brain.”
Soon, they devised their own contest — a pitch competition for female entrepreneurs they called Ms. Geek Rwanda. It was streamed on YouTube, and they began to build a following.
The idea was to make the notion of a technology career “real” to young women, said Esther Kunda, 27, the programs and operations coordinator at the Next Einstein Forum and one of the founding members of Girls in ICT, the group responsible for the Ms. Geek competition.
Over the past two decades, Rwandan women have risen from the ashes of a nation decimated by genocide to assume positions of leadership in government, industry and education. And though there are no national statistics on women in the country’s blossoming tech sector, many leading tech companies report high female representation, with some clocking in at more than 50 percent.
Unlike at firms in the U.S. and other developed nations, being inclusive of women is more than a goal at Rwandan companies — it is a requirement. For years, the country has used quotas, mentorship programs, internships and national campaigns as part of the singular mission of getting more women into the tech industry.
And it’s working.
The country has been so successful that several U.S. advocates of women in tech said Silicon Valley would do well to take notes.
“Rwanda has lessons for us,” said Swanee Hunt, an activist and former U.S. ambassador to Austria who recently wrote the book “Rwanda Women Rising.”“They have figured out a lot of things that we haven't.”
Women hold only about a quarter of U.S. computing and mathematical jobs by most estimates — a figure that has fallen over the past 15 years. They’re hired less frequently and leave tech jobs nearly twice as often as their male counterparts.
The tech industry, long mired in its image of bros in hoodies crushing code, has made attempts over the past several years to address its diversity problem. Companies have hired diversity coordinators, invested in mentorship programs, released diversity statistics and required managers to undergo training.
And yet, four years after the first diversity reports were released, there’s been little movement in the way of female representation.
Meanwhile, half a world away, in a tiny East African nation, Rwandan women are joining tech companies and signing up for coding classes at unprecedented rates.
Companies held to government-issued diversity quotas report not only meeting those expectations, but shattering them.
If a woman and a man were equally qualified for a position, several executives said, the job would almost always go to the woman.
“It’s a really good place to be when you’re a woman and have ambitions, just because there’s a push to get women into all sectors,” Kunda said.
Rwanda is landlocked, densely populated and surrounded by countries that dwarf it in size and resources.
In the spring of 1994, the country was consumed by unimaginable violence. Under orders from the government to exterminate an ethnic minority known as Tutsis, neighbors turned on neighbors. Colleagues killed colleagues. Family members murdered their own.
Roughly a seventh of the population — more than 800,000 people by some estimates — was slaughtered in just 100 days.
Infrastructure was ravaged, homes and businesses ransacked. The economy was left in shambles. Hundreds of thousands of people were traumatized, wounded or orphaned. More than 250,000 women had been raped. Thousands of ethnic Hutus, the majority group, fled the country. More than 2 million of those who stayed were indicted for their participation in the massacre.
Rwanda had to begin again from zero.
In an ambitious turn, President Paul Kagame set his sights on building a knowledge-based economy, the Silicon Valley of East Africa.
“When it’s dark, there’s an opportunity,” said Pierre Kayitana, 31, director of operations for RwandaOnline, a company that works to digitize government services in the country. “Rwanda knew (technology) would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and opportunities. It was a way forward.”
Women made up 70 percent of the Rwandan population when the killing stopped.
Turning decades of patriarchal rule and strictly enforced gender norms on their head, Rwanda thrust women into roles as village leaders, community health workers and purveyors of justice. Soon, women were ascending to the very top of government and industry.
In 2008, women tipped the scale in Parliament, the country’s elected legislative body, becoming the majority.
A rapid overhaul of laws followed, making those changes permanent: Women were granted the right to inherit and own land. A quota system was instituted for all public offices, mandating that 30 percent of positions be held by women. Abuse of women and girls was outlawed. So was discrimination.
Today, one of the most frequently cited statistics about Rwanda is this: Sixty-four percent of the seats in Parliament are held by women.
No other nation in the world comes close. In the U.S., women occupy less than 20 percent of the seats in Congress.
“If we could do what Rwanda did in their first election and get 42 percent of our Congress to be women, just imagine how different that would be,” Hunt said. “We forget that we can do this, that this is possible for us, too. Instead, people say, ‘Oh well, it’s just our society. It’s different.’ But I think what Rwanda shows us is any society — any society — can figure this out.”
More than 52 percent of Rwandan students at private universities are female, according to national statistics from 2015. Administrators say that when there’s a gender imbalance in tech classes, it’s because more women than men signed up. Kigali’s Akilah Institute, the first college in the country built exclusively for women, began offering a degree in ICT, or information and communications technology, in 2014 to a class of 10 women. Now, more than 60 are enrolled.
The Rwandan government’s unyielding support of women is rooted as much in President Kagame’s hope for the future as his fear of repeating the past.
“He wants women in power because they’re not going to start wars or plot slaughters the way men do,” Hunt said. “Context matters. He’s looking at women empowerment from the viewpoint of someone who has seen his country consumed by genocide.”
Still, life for Rwandan women remains far from utopian.
Many girls are taught young that being a “good Rwandan” means keeping quiet, being deferential and pliant, Rwandan women say. Some are taught, too, to fear violence if they don’t obey. Domestic violence often goes unreported.
At school, girls can be teased for being too pushy, too bossy, too “muzungu,” a term used to connote Westerner, foreigner, someone who does not belong.
And women still face pressures to marry and have children, regardless of their careers.
Even so, Rwanda’s government has used its long reach into private industry to promote women in the workplace. It has set mandatory minimums for female hires that companies have been expected to maintain.
For tech firms like DMM.HeHe, one of Rwanda’s most successful startups, the mandatory target was 13 percent. Soon the company had crossed 50 percent.
“It’s actually quite interesting that when we saw we were at 53 percent female, we were like, ‘Huh? How did we get to that?’” DMM.HeHe spokeswoman Bridget Uwineza said.
Hiring quotas are, of course, illegal in the United States.
So, instead of quotas, some companies have instituted hiring goals — with financial incentives.
Intel, for example, set a goal of having 40 percent of all new hires in 2015 be female or underrepresented minorities. Meeting that goal meant the Santa Clara company would award a bonus to all its employees.
That year, Intel not only met, but exceeded its goal: 43 percent of new hires were women or underrepresented minorities. Last year, the company moved the mark to 45 percent — and met it again.
Intel saw its share of female workers creep up from 23.5 percent in 2014 to 26 percent in 2017 — a significant shift for a company with a workforce of 100,000 worldwide.
“That’s effective, and that’s great, but there’s also something that needs to be added and that is retention,” said Gloria Feldt, the president of Take the Lead, a nonprofit that aims to get women into positions of leadership in the tech sector. “Retention is where (companies) lose high performing women who should be making it into the upper leadership ranks.”
At DMM.HeHe, a company that builds online strategies and mobile-friendly websites for small businesses, Chief Executive Officer Clarisse Iribagiza, one of Rwanda’s most high-profile entrepreneurs, has drawn from her own experience to build a workplace where women not only feel valued but also that their needs are being met.
A generous maternity leave policy, after-work chats about work-life balance and more help instill a feeling of community, said Fileille Naberwe, 20, a fellow at DMM.HeHe and student at the African Leadership University in Kigali.
“It’s such a nice environment,” Naberwe said. Another draw “is seeing (Iribagiza) in one of the biggest positions, and seeing her handling it like a boss.”
Role models and mentors make a tangible difference in the success of women in business, tech and other sectors, studies have shown. And yet, women tend to have a harder time finding mentors than men do.
That, Kunda said, was the driving force behind Ms. Geek — and why it has taken off.
“If you have career guidance plus role models, it shows kids, ‘Hey, you guys, if you want this particular cool job or this career, these are the things you should be focusing on,’” Kunda said. “Most of us always say for us to reach wherever we are, we’ve had role models so we want to give back whatever was given to us when we were young.”
The strategy adopted by her organization, Girls in ICT, is, in many ways, similar to efforts under way in Silicon Valley. The group urges young women to specialize in math, computer science and engineering in school; supports women already in the workplace; provides mentorship; and creates a path for female professionals to become leaders, executives and board members.
To some advocates of female inclusion, the notion of a national competition on the level of Ms. Geek — which has grown into Ms. Geek Africa after its start in Rwanda in 2014 — seems inspired.
“Those kinds of contests highlight people who’ve done great things,” Feldt said, adding: “Girls are getting inspired by this, and it’s actually moving the needle.”
Rosine Mwiseneza, a past Ms. Geek Rwanda victor, said one of the most rewarding aspects of winning is being able to be that role model for young women and girls who may have ideas of their own but no one to show them the way.
Seeing another woman achieve things you would like to achieve, “gives you hope, creates a strong connection having that person,” Mwiseneza said. “It gives you strength and motivates you to think, ‘Why not me? Why can’t I do it?’”
Published on SF Chronicle on January 13, 2018