Growing up in Ghana, Regina Agyare remembers the weight of the expectations placed upon her from an early age.
“Growing up, you were kind of told what you were going to do back then. I was good in math or science, so I was told I was going to be a doctor.”
It’s a future that Agyare had always believed to be true for herself. That is, until her father brought home her family’s first computer when she was 12. It was then that she began to feel a new passion growing within her that would lead her to her true calling.
“I played a game called Pac-Man,” she recalls as she describes her first encounter with the computer. “As I was playing, I kept thinking that I wanted to change certain things about the game. I wanted to add more color, and I wanted to be able to do more than just have the little yellow ball chase the other things around; I wanted to have something different. So as I was having this thought process, I kept thinking that I wanted to make my own Pac-Man. I liked this one, but I could do it better. I found out that to be able to do that, you have to learn to code [and] you have to become a developer. So that’s when I decided: I’m going to make my own Pac-Man, and I’m going to be a software developer.”
As she completed her studies leading up to university, she remembers continuously being driven by her curiosity, thinking back to instances like the one when she wanted to build her own jetpack after a man fly around using one in a movie. “I drew the prototype of the rocket,” she recalls, “and I took it to my physics teacher. And he said, ‘It’s impossible; girls don’t build rockets.’ And [he just said] I would end up in the kitchen.”
It was not an uncommon reaction. However, Agyare could not detach herself from her curiosity, nor could she deny her proclivity for math and science — interests that she consistently recognized as setting her apart from the expectations of a “typical” Ghanaian girl.
“There’s a lot of socialization, be it cultural or whatever, that sort of seeks to put women in certain roles.” She says looking back on her own experiences with cultural influences. “The understanding is that women are naturally supposed to respond better to the arts, and we are not naturally supposed to be good at math and science. For me, [it] was very strange because I was bad in art, and very good in math and science. I couldn’t even sew a straight hemline, [but] I was very good at math! So I was just different.”
Despite the cultural expectations she faced and many words of discouragement from people around her, save her parents and family, Agyare followed through with her desire to go into the field of computer science. It was a journey throughout which she never failed to stand out because of her gender. She went from first being one of only three women pursuing degrees in computer science at Ashesi University to being the only woman in the IT department of the international bank in Accra that she went to work for after graduation.
Thinking back to her experience with the bank as the only woman in her department, Agyare remembers the struggles of having to adapt and shape her behavior according, once again, to expectations.
“When you work in an IT department, you have to be a team player. It’s important that you get along with the team. I learned how to — what I always say — “massage the male ego.” That means, if I know the answer to something, I have to wait for the guys to come around to it first. I had to be quiet and let the guys talk, and I would sort of chime in my views so that they wouldn’t feel like I’m showing off. It would have been very easy for them to sort of ostracize me and put me in a little corner where I kind of did my own thing.”
That is not to say that Agyare was not valued for her talent and intellect. On the contrary, she believes that one of the other essential things she learned as a woman on an otherwise all-male team is that it’s crucial to be good at what you do.
“Men respect you when you are good at your skill,” she insists. “I am an excellent coder, and it helped a lot because I could talk to them at a level where there was mutual respect because I knew what I was doing. If I was put in that position, for example, maybe to fix a little gender issue, I wouldn’t have been as respected if I couldn’t produce work of a certain standard.”
Yet, even with that recognition of how her strong performance and work helped her earn the respect of her male colleagues, Agyare does not deny that even those capabilities and qualifications could not help her entirely overcome discrimination.
Aside from the regular stereotypical attitudes she had to face as the sole woman in the IT department — she was assumed to be the receptionist on more than one occasion — Agyare was also appalled at the blatancy with which sexism hindered her ability to grow within the bank.
“I was passed on for a promotion because of my age and gender, which was very, very devastating for me.” She says. “And it was so clear, because I was the only one who was hired to set up the e-banking department, and I started working on the product; I built it, and I tweaked it. I was fully responsible for the work, [so] I was really proud when the product was launched. But when I walked into the room [to interview for the promotion], the first thing the man saw when he looked at me was that I’m young and I’m female. He didn’t even continue to have a serious discussion after that. In his mind, I couldn’t be what walks into the room when you introduce the head of an IT department. People wouldn’t respond well to me. And that’s what enraged me; he didn’t even give me a chance; he just made up his mind…There was no chance that I was getting that position, whether qualified or not qualified.”
Agyare’s experiences in the field of computer science have constantly placed her in positions where she has stood out because of her gender, many times in such a way that it served as a burden or an obstacle. However, details that cause one to stand out can just as easily serve as a source of strength as they can a source of weakness — it is simply a matter of how they are framed within the greater picture. For Agyare, her unique experiences as a woman in computer science served to provide her with a particularly unique story; one that essentially shaped her and pushed her towards her ultimate goal of social entrepreneurship and the facilitation of social change through technology.
Check back next week to see how Agyare took the obstacles she faced as a woman in the IT department of an international bank in Accra and used them as fuel to go out on her own and launch her own software development company, Soronko Solutions.