“As leaders, we have the opportunity to lift up other women.”
Day four of the delegation trip began with the Women in Leadership Forum, an event dedicated to discussing challenges and opportunities for women’s leadership and career development in STEM fields. Together with local entrepreneurs, business owners and women in STEM, fellows and mentors explored existing power structures, sharing best practices on how women leaders can lift each other up and succeed in male-dominated industries.
Opening up the conference, fellow Seinya Bakarr shared that only 12% of parliamentarians are women in Sierra Leone; the lack of representation, she argued, has created multiple challenges within the country. Addressing the room of women, many of whom had forged their own paths in their careers, Seinya called for a sustained commitment to increased representation and fair policies. In her talk that followed, mentor Shawne Van Deusen-Jeffries echoed Seinya’s sentiment, stressing the importance of speaking up for others and enabling other women. A good start, she said, was to strive to actively hire other women: “As women leaders, we have a voice, and we need to use that voice to lift up others.”
The panels that followed were themed around creating supportive communities, sharing best practices on how to thrive in their industries while also supporting and mentoring other women. In the first panel, “Lifting up the next generation of women,” panelists discussed cultural differences, exploring the idea that historically, women are taught to be seen not heard. Trudy Morgan, president of Sierra Leone Women Engineers, shared her personal experience of feeling she needed to be tougher in front of men in order to prove her value. “The power structures haven’t changed,” she said, “but we as women should not change who we are in order to be what they want us to be.” Mentor Soniya Goyal spoke about inclusion, encouraging the audience to bring people to the table whose voices might not be loud but should nonetheless be heard. “Give them opportunities to share ideas in meetings,” she said “They are just as capable of doing the work.”
In the second panel, “Finding and owning your voice,” TechWomen mentors and local business leaders spoke about adopting a growth mindset, focusing on how to foster an environment that encourages both personal and professional development. In the breakout sessions that followed, the groups discussed finding an ally at work – whether it is a man or a woman – and steps to positively change workplace culture. Impact Coach Jessica Dickinson Goodman reminded the room that they have the power to control their space, and that each person has the power to change their culture. At the end of the conference, attendee and UNDP consultant Habiba Wurie stood up to give her insight: “Find your tribe, cultivate your tribe, maintain your tribe,” she said. “The networks will eventually come.”
Building networks and creating new partnerships
The community building continued at the evening’s networking reception, where TechWomen director Jillian Scott welcomed local business leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs: “Tonight we’re here to build networks,” she said. “To meet each other and find those commonalities that collectively help us make impact.” 2017 fellow of Nigeria Busayo Durojaiye followed, sharing her commitment to using her expertise to improve her community: an architect by trade, Busayo led a project using recycled materials to build a playground, giving all children the opportunity to play outdoors. “This is a challenge to each and every one of us in this room to reach out. Go out to your community. Your community and my community is anywhere we find ourselves at any point,” she said.
Chernor Bah, the founder and executive director of Purposeful Productions, stressed the importance of investing in women, arguing that societies cannot solve today’s most pressing issues if girls and women are left out of the conversation. He made a call to the audience to be a part of the revolution that is brewing in Sierra Leone, urging those in attendance to create environments where women and girls can thrive. Mentor Katy Dickinson, founder of Mentoring Standard, stressed to the audience that creating a personal network is not about who you know, but rather who knows you. She spoke about the importance of creating community, encouraging the audience to grow their network by seeking out others who share similar value systems.
As the evening concluded and attendees swapped business cards and handshakes, it was clear that the women who participated in the day’s activities had already heeded Katy’s advice. New networks were built, promising connections were made and women spanning different countries, ages and industries found a new support system in each other.
Follow the hashtag #twsl on Twitter for more content from the TechWomen delegation trip to Sierra Leone!