Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day: Celebrating Nancy Hafkin

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. And to celebrate the day, I'm blogging about women in technology who have influenced me in some way. It's especially important to celebrate the achievements of women, because research shows that having role models and mentors greatly motivates younger women seeking to participate more in technology.

Now what does being "in technology" mean? It could be as varied as working as a programmer to a database developer to a researcher to a vendor and even to a writer.

Over the last few decade or so, I have been fortunate to meet several women who I have learnt from or been inspired by in some way. And initially, I was going to attempt to write about all of them, but that plan is a little ambitious for now, so I have selected the woman who was one of my earliest guiding lights, who gave me an idea of the realms of possibilities, which existed for me.

She is Dr. Nancy Hafkin. I was introduced to her when I was job-hunting in the U.S. This was in 2001 and it was a particularly bad time to look for a job, because a few months before the dot-com bubble had burst, which resulted in the folding up of many internet-based companies and the loss of many information technology jobs. I was given Ms. Hafkin's number because she was considered to be very knowledgeable about the gender and technology cross-discipline. I had not heard of her then, but I Googled her, as was my practice.

I was so impressed and rather awed by what I read. Nancy Hafkin led the research on ICT for development (information and communication technologies) and gender and ICT issues since the early 1980s. She had worked on the African continent on ICT4D issues for approximately 20 years, including positions at the UN and the Economic Commission of Africa. However she had recently returned to the Boston area.

When I got in touch, by email and then phone, she was extremely warm and helpful. She asked me about my interests and shared advice on organisations to try and people to get in touch with. I was particularly humbled because coming from Nigeria, I know all about the "Big Man/Woman Syndrome" where you could not get audience with most accomplished or influential people without going through layers of protocol first and despite that, still having to deal with a patently dismissive attitude from said person.

A couple of months later when I got a job offer, I emailed Ms. Hafkin to share the news with her. It was about four years later at a conference I attended just before moving back to Lagos that I finally met her face-to-face. She was one of the speakers and I could not wait to introduce myself to her after the panel.

I started off "You don't know me, but I am ....."

"Ore XX", she completed.

I was stunned and bowled over.

"How did you know? I stammered.

She smiled. "I just knew."

She was thrilled to hear that I was moving back home (one of the few who didn't immediately assume that I was having visa problems or being deported).

When I mentioned in an off-hand manner that I was thinking about getting a PhD but was not so sure anymore, she beamed and encouraged me to do it. Then, she reeled off a list of Ivy League schools that she thought I should apply to.

"Hmmm, this lady really thinks A WHOLE LOT of me. Ivy League? I don't know about that...."

Shortly after the conference, I moved back home and haven't had the opportunity to see her again. However, her encouraging words, accomplishments and her spirit left an indelible impression on me and have propelled me on in my career choices ever since.

I remember when I was thinking about topics for my Masters degree thesis and after dancing around various subjects, circled in on women and IT. I wasn't quite sure if it was a viable area for exploration and it certainly didn't have that ring of prestige that some of my colleague's topics did. I wasn't sure where it would lead, if truth be told aside from a vague plan that I would "work with women and girls" in a role where technology met society.

However, now because of women like Dr. Nancy Hafkin, I feel like I made a series of alright choices after all. While her work is about technology, it is centered on the people who use the technology: how they use it, how they can use it more efficiently and also on the people who are not using the technology: why not, what technology has to offer them and how user challenges can be addressed. This has been a good guide for me and I know because she was helped pioneer a new field, I'll be better than okay doing something unconventional, as long as it is something I feel called to do.

Learn more about Ada Lovelace Day: http://findingada.com/

Read the other posts on the Ada Lovelace mash-up

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