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When Elizabeth Mlambo, of the University of Zimbabwe, hears that joking about separate female labs can lose you your job in the United Kingdom, she laughs in incredulity. For, at the University of Zimbabwe, where she is a librarian, her experiment in female-only computer labs is viewed as a great success.
Separate male and female labs were suggested jokingly by British Nobel prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt last year, leading to a furore from those who feel women still face sexist attitudes in science.
“Enter the 24-hour labs in the small hours and you will find nightgown-clad women tapping away at their assignments or browsing the growing world of open-access research.”
Elizabeth Mlambo, University of Zimbabwe
So, as we approach the first International Day of Women and Girls in Science, taking place tomorrow, I asked Mlambo why female-only computer labs were seen as the way forward at her university.
Mlambo tells me she had been concerned at the low numbers of women using computer labs around the university.  She and two colleagues did a study revealing that 13 per cent of users were female, despite gender parity in the university as a whole. 
Their research convinced them that well-intentioned, ‘gender blind’ access rules were to blame. Computers were booked each morning on a first-come, first-served basis, but this led to a push-and-shove culture that women avoided. Many women also felt that visiting the labs later in the evening — they close at midnight — would lead to gossip.
In addition, some women felt intimidated by the men, who had often had more exposure to information and communications technology in childhood.
Mlambo’s first solution — a computer lab for women on the main campus — was rejected by the university authorities for discriminating against men. But providing facilities in the women’s hostels proved less controversial. So, since 2010, this is what Mlambo and her colleague Precious Mwatsiya have been raising money to do just that.
Several years later — after receiving financial help from Canada’s International Development Research Centre and The Maersk Group, coordination from charity Computer Aid International, and technical and infrastructure support from the university — there are labs with 50 computers in three of the female hostels, serving 1,500 women in all.
“The reaction was just overwhelming,” says Mlambo, referring to the opening of the first one. Enter the 24-hour labs in the small hours and you will find nightgown-clad women tapping away at their assignments or browsing the growing world of open-access research, she says.
Training has been provided for the poorest students, many of whom were computer illiterate on arrival.
“The girls now feel that it’s their right to use computers … the male students are more accepting towards them.”
Elizabeth Mlambo, University of Zimbabwe
Mlambo says the single-sex computer labs have transformed lives. Already, several graduates have found jobs and got on courses for which they would not previously have qualified.
But perhaps the most interesting consequence is on the gender balance in the mixed labs on the main campus: anecdotally, there seem to be as many women there now as men.
“The girls now feel that it’s their right to use computers … the male students are more accepting towards them,” says Mlambo.
There are still problems. Female students who live at home, such as postgraduates juggling jobs, families and studies, or the poorest undergraduates, still have limited access.And male students have complained that the women are now more privileged than them. In fact, just this week pressure from the male students compelled the university to agree to set up labs in the male hostels too.
In the long term, Mlambo hopes, the female labs will set a new standard for all to aspire to: 24-hour, widespread computer access for all, in safe, unintimidating spaces.
She wants to help other Zimbabwean universities do the same, and believes the project could be repeated in other southern African countries.
Aisling Irwin is a science journalist and writer based in the United Kingdom, and a former SciDev.Net news editor. She is contactable on [email protected]
 Doubling digital opportunities: Enhancing the inclusion of women & girls in the information society (The Broadband Commission for Digital Development, 2013)
 Buhle Mbambo-Thata and others When a gender-blind access policy results in discrimination: realities and perceptions of female students at the University of Zimbabwe In: Ineke Buskens and Anne Webb (editors) African women and ICTs: Creating new spaces with technology (Zed Books, 2009)