How do you shift the cultural stigma around technology and gender? As Juma Baldeh has proven in Gambia, you do it one girl at a time. Baldeh founded Hackathon Girls Banjul for girls ages 8 to 18 in her home country, in coordination with the Mozilla Foundation. As the first technology club of its kind there, members receive six months of free weekly classes on web literacy and basic computing skills. More importantly, the club gives more than 40 girls a safe space to collaborate and share experiences as they work together on projects for a tech-savvy Gambia.
“Too often I witness young girls, who are skilled in math and science, lose hope as they prepare for interviews and professional positions,” Baldeh said. “Right now, many girls in this field leave it because they think computer jobs are too difficult and they lose confidence at some point.”
The club started with a small space and just five girls, training to be proficient in basic computing skills, computer programing, online security and privacy, and research and networking. Through these skills the girls can then go on to civic participation, economic empowerment, and leadership roles. One of the many problems with Internet literacy in Gambia, Baldeh says, is that “it’s seen as a hobby, not a profession.”
“Almost everyone is using the Internet now and in the next million years to come,” she said. “If people are shown how to use the web in an inclusive and engaging way, then people will use the Internet to unlock social and other opportunities. For instance, a teacher can reach out to her students remotely, a business owner can reach out to her customers easily and faster, but without people being web literate they won’t be able to understand what the Internet can do and therefore will be disadvantaged.”
Baldeh’s main goals are to provide the right hubs for tech activities, which includes Internet connectivity. She wants to “break cultural, social, and gender barriers to equal online access.” She also hopes to give young people a voice in the digital policy development that will affect them. She does this both with the club and in her full-time work.
Outside of Hackathon Girls, Baldeh works at InSIST Global, the No. 1 software company in Gambia, which specializes in hardy, flexible, and low-cost information systems within the African context. She says her manager, Kumbale Goode, has been an inspiration, mentor and friend throughout her tech journey.
“I always admired her as a lady working at a software company,” Baldeh said. “Her guidance was incredible, and also her humility stunned me as she was also ready to learn from me and see me excel.”
Excelling is something that takes hard work and dedication, man or woman, Baldeh says, and she’s made many sacrifices to get to where she is today.
“I felt intimidated most times in my programming classes or discouraged, but then I said to myself I have started this journey and now is the time to work like a boy,” she said. “I stayed up late most times to study and actually go through a lot of my work over and over again just to make sure I came out good in my programming classes. My advice to girls who want to go into the field of IT is to work hard and never get discouraged.”
Join SIG Women, which is open to all people and “works towards the involvement of women in technology and contributes to reducing the gender gap in the field.”