Image courtesy of Tech Needs Girls.

Empowering not imposing - Why women need to lead an organisational revolution.

By Meera Patel

Growing up in Kumasi, Ghana, Regina Agyare was fascinated by science and technology, an obsession that made her socially conservative teachers uncomfortable. When she was eleven her father brought home a computer. Like many teenagers in the early 1990s she became obsessed with playing PacMan. Driven by this love of technology she went on to study computer science at university. Fast forward 20 years and Regina is at the forefront of a technological revolution in Ghana.

Through the programme ‘Tech Needs Girls’, Agyare and her team are teaching hundreds of young women across the region to code. Agyare’s organisation, Soronko Solutions, employs many of these students to help bring local SMEs online. By equipping these girls with the tools to create their own technological platforms and apps, Soronko Solutions are empowering young women from deprived backgrounds to move away from being passive consumers of technology and towards shaping the development of the field themselves.

Practical Action, Real Change

Given the scale of the challenge women still face at work practical, entrepreneurial solutions like Regina’s are more necessary than ever.
Whilst women today are more likely than their predecessors to have attended school or university, they continue the historic trend of underrepresentation in leadership positions. When it was announced in 2015 that women now make up 23% of the board member positions in FTSE 100 companies it was lauded as “enormous progress” with little sense of irony.

In industrialised countries 75% of women are employed in what the ILO terms “low-paying, service sector jobs”. Whilst the data for industrialising countries is far less available, it is unlikely that the picture is much better. 
The need for a new approach to workplace gender inequality is increasingly evident. Legislation, quotas and other conventional responses to wage and leadership inequalities in the workplace have had a debateable and usually painfully slow impact.

Where change has been achieved it is often at a board room level rather than for women throughout the workforce. Furthermore, where attempts to make work environments more ‘woman-friendly’ have succeeded through flexible working hours, the changes have often been of most benefit to middle class women in professional careers and rarely afforded to working class women.

Empowering Women at Work

Initiatives like Soronko Solutions are important because they bypass these conventional top-down solutions by directly empowering women to change their relationships with labour markets. Instead of fulfilling the conventional female roles as endpoint consumers or junior employees, the girls and women on Agyare’s programme own the means of production themselves. 
Soronko Solutions’ focus on empowerment is not an isolated example. It is part of a much wider empowerment trend that is shaping markets and economies globally.

Robin Chase, the founder of ZipCar both exemplifies and understands this shift. She is the founder and CEO of the largest car-sharing platform in the world, and since 2000 when ZipCar began, she has been in a prime position to observe the challenges and the success of new empowered business models. 
Chase refers to ‘Peers Inc.’ a phenomenon where companies empower millions of people, to develop, deliver and diversify their products through a peer to peer model. According to Chase, these Peers Inc. companies “grow faster, learn faster, and adapt faster” She argues that “today, the most value is created by opening assets up and maximizing the participation of individuals — to experiment, to localize, to adapt, to innovate.” In essence, value is created in this new economy by empowering people to create, not simply deliver services.

New organisational models that empower people on a mass level could have an enormous impact by creating new economic and business structures that allow girls and women to lead, innovate and build for themselves and their communities. These new business models are tools that can be seized by women to redefine what leadership, and even business itself, means. In short, these tools will create the organisations that are designed for the empowered women that Regina Agyare is teaching.

Meera Patel works on Communications in Ashoka UK and Ashoka Europe. You can follow her on Twitter here. Regina Agyare is an Ashoka Fellow, you can find out more about her here. This post was written for International Women’s Day 2016. You can also follow our work on Twitter, click here for our feed.