By Alycia Leonard
One project I tackled during my Junior Fellowship with VOTO Mobile was the implementation of an initiative to increase the hiring of local women in our company. While VOTO has strong local hiring practices in Ghana, it tends to hire more men than women, particularly within its operations team. My manager and I wanted to fix that. We knew that there were great, tech-savvy, socially-innovative Ghanaian women out there, and we wanted to find them.
Together we developed a brainchild to tackle this problem: a competition event called the VOTOWO Design Challenge. Women would apply for this challenge by submitting a design proposal for a mobile phone-based social innovation. Several applicants would be selected to participate in a competition event where winners would receive monetary prizes and would be scouted for employment with VOTO. As young women interested in technology and social change, my manager and I were both excited by this concept and latched onto the idea. We quickly brought it to life, implementing application infrastructure and promoting it through a multitude of channels. The response we received from the international development community on social media was amazing; everyone was re-tweeting us and congratulating us for undertaking such a worthwhile initiative.
However, despite the noise on social media, my inbox sounded more like crickets. A few days before the intended event date we had only received two applications. What had gone wrong?
My manager and I reconvened to reanimate this idea. After prolonged discussion, we surmised that we hadn’t made the competition attractive enough to potential applicants. We tried to step into the shoes of the Ghanaian women we were trying to reach. Maybe if we clarified application instructions and further highlighted the benefits of participation, we would receive a better response. We tweaked our application materials, extended the deadline, and promoted zealously.
But the crickets maintained their chorus in my inbox.
Colleagues at VOTO began asking increasingly about how applications were rolling in – they knew the event date was fast approaching. I told them, slightly embarrassed, about the situation. It was at this point that truths unknown to me began to emerge:
“Women won’t think they can write a design proposal. It sounds too complex.”
“The prize isn’t big enough. And you should put it in American dollars. People like American dollars.”
“All the good women in Ghana are scouted by tech companies. Everyone has a diversity initiative. You’re competing for a very few women and you’re not making it easy.”
This kind of feedback came candidly and naturally from Ghanaian colleagues at VOTO. It was then that I noticed something: my manager and I – two white, western women – had designed this initiative with minimal input from our Ghanaian co-workers. Sure, several colleagues had reviewed our event description and application instructions prior to launch, but we hadn’t asked for input in the design of the event itself. We had not properly brought others into the creation of this event, and in doing so, we neglected to leverage one of EWB’s key pillars of systems change leadership: cross-cultural collaboration and co-creation.
Ultimately, the VOTOWO Design Competition failed. We received three good applications, but this was inadequate to stage the full competition. We retained contact information for promising applicants and scrapped the event.
This experience reinforced the importance of deliberately checking my lack of cultural understanding when working in an unfamiliar context. Sure, a design competition with a monetary prize and a strong chance for employment at a leading social enterprise sounds exciting to me. But does it sound exciting to the Ghanaian women VOTO wants to hire? What forms of privilege might limit the number of viable female candidates we receive? Does our event address these privilege barriers? How do gender dynamics and expectations in Ghana differ from Canada, even amongst individuals with post-secondary education? How do these expectations affect responses to this kind of event?
These are questions that I can’t answer alone. I may be a young, tech-savvy, socially-minded, educated woman, but I am not Ghanaian. What seemed like a “one-size-fits-all” initiative to me was not viable in the context of VOTO in Ghana. This is why incorporating culturally-aware people into the design process – whether designing a venture project or an internal company initiative – is critical. Through this failure, I have learned to focus on deliberately challenging my worldview through cross-cultural collaboration and co-creation at all parts of the design process.
Alycia Leonard is the president of Memorial University’s EWB chapter. She completed a Junior Fellowship over the summer of 2016, during which she worked for VOTO Mobile in Kumasi, Ghana. Alycia is a fourth year Electrical Engineering student hailing from St. Philip’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.