Interview: Sofie Blakstad, CEO, hiveonline
“They cannot read, don’t have grid electricity, have never used a phone before, and many of them live miles from the nearest road. But they set up businesses, and they are running businesses, and they are the backbone of the community,” says Sofie Blakstad, CEO of hiveoneline, of some of the women her business works with in sub-Saharan Africa.
Startup hiveonline operates in several African countries such as Niger, Mozambique, Zambia and Uganda, helping locals who would not otherwise be able to access finance or gain access to credit and markets. The firm also helps them with financial and digital literacy.
In many cases, the people hiveonline works with have no experience with technology and are often illiterate, but despite this, Blakstad says they take to technology “like ducks to water”.
“It’s lifting the bar, particularly for women who are much more likely to be excluded from technology or money,” she adds.
Creating a tech legacy
The 2021 Everywoman in Technology Awards were focused on the theme of creating a legacy, so it isn’t surprising that Blakstad went on to win the International Inspiration Award.
With hiveonline’s blockchain based system, entrepreneurs in communities without access to necessities such as technology or electricity can trade goods for digital local currency, with the use of blockchain meaning there is a secure transactional record.
Because most of the people hiveonline works with have never used technology before, there were certain obstacles Blakstad was not expecting.
For example, some of the symbols used in-app that would usually be intuitive to a regular technology user, such as the “send” symbol represented by an arrow or paper plane, didn’t mean anything to hiveonline’s users until they were taught its function.
While Blakstad discussed using a symbol more relevant to the users, women using the app asked instead to just be educated on what it meant so they can use it in the correct way.
Harking back to everywoman’s theme of building a legacy, this could potentially lead to hiveonline users being better able to use and understand other applications in the future through developing transferable skills.
From women in tech to tech for women
Blackstad has been in the technology sector for a long time, and admits that she has been one of “very few women in the room” for a lot of her career – and, in some cases, the only time there was another woman in the room was during diversity committee meetings.
But the deeper issues relating to the lack of women in the sector were not something she started to notice until she made her way into tech leadership positions in the banking sector around 20 years ago, adding: “I never really felt unrepresented until I started taking on more leadership roles.”
At one technology company she worked for, Blakstad said there was a significant pay gap between male and female colleagues across the organisation, which is when she began to see the real problem.
Presenteeism was also apparent, making it difficult for employees to drop their children at school before work, for example.
Blakstad says: “The fact that I’m a woman has never really damaged my career as much, but I could see it damaging other people’s careers.”
Having worked globally, Blakstad has experienced how women and other minority groups in tech are treated in different places, highlighting that increasing the amount of diversity in the technology sector cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.
Talking about different regions she’s worked in, including the UK, the US, Singapore, Switzerland, France and Germany, Blakstad says Switzerland in particular was an “eye opener” – women weren’t allowed to vote in Switzerland until the 70s – and, in her experience, racism and sexism in the country are on a “new level”.
“I was leading a large project with a few hundred people in it in Switzerland, and they couldn’t accept that they were being told what to do by a woman. That was just really strange to me, because I’d run a lot of projects and done a lot of big infrastructure work,” Blakstad says.
“It really became apparent to me that this apparently modern society in modern culture still harboured what I regard as very Neanderthal views.”
Much like her mother, who was a computer programmer in the 70s, would work on a high stool with her kids around her on the floor, when Blakstad first had a baby she spent a lot of her maternity leave still doing calls with the US, and at the time it seemed normal.
These experiences are at least an indication of how the sector has changed over time, especially in the UK.
Role models and the tech pipeline
To continue creating a more diverse technology sector, there have been attempts to encourage young women and girls to take an interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects which may later translate into tech careers.
But there are many reasons young women do not choose to pursue tech careers and subjects, including girls claiming that STEM subjects are too hard, and stereotypes about who pursues STEM careers.
Pointing at social and cultural differences between how women and men are brought up, Blakstad says this is often what ends up discouraging girls from STEM subjects, as they are “not allowed to engage with their subjects” in the same way.
Outside of issues with culture and schooling, a lack of visible and accessible role models in the sector is also something cited as preventing more girls from believing that a STEM career could be for them.
Events such as the everywoman in tech awards, as well as Computer Weekly’s annual list of the most influential women in UK tech, are aimed at trying to increase the profile of women in the industry so others can see where their future could take them.
Blakstad says all types of role models should be more visible – for example, she is a self-taught programmer who originally worked in publishing.
“It’s really important that women like me who don’t have all of the advantages that a typical male Stanford graduate has are seen to be leaders in this field,” she concludes.
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