• Shivangi Sareen

Celebrating Girls and Women in ICT

Women in Tech, The Guardian © Kiki Ljung

57% of women working in the tech sector have experienced gender discrimination in the workplace, compared to just 10% of men, according to career website Dice (their ‘Equality in Tech’ report is based on a survey of more than 9,000 technologists situated throughout every corner of the U.S). Nearly half (48%) of women also reported seeing discrimination in terms of their technical abilities — double that of men [source].

Particularly, in the field of software engineering, women represent only 14% of the total workforce and computer science-related jobs at 25% of the total workforce in the US. The numbers are even bleaker when it comes to women of colour [source]. Women of colour make-up only 18% of entry-level positions, as opposed to 30% of white women and 35% of white men [source].

But women are breaking down barriers. Talking Tech: Girls and Women in ICT is all about celebrating women and their journeys in technology.

Talking Tech is a series of intergenerational discussions between girls and women in technology. As a contribution by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to the EQUALS Global Partnership for Gender Digital Equality, the series offers diverse examples of how women are driving change in ICTs and inspiring the next generation of women in tech.

“39% of women view gender bias as a primary reason for not being offered a promotion in the US.” [source]

Nila Achia, currently the founder and CEO of Women in Digital, faced a similar obstacle in her career. Her journey started in 2006 when she interviewed to be a junior software engineer. After six years working for the company, she started talking to her boss about getting a promotion. She was well compensated for the work she was doing; however, her seniors kept denying her a higher designation claiming that she's earning more than enough and being a woman, she's unable to put in late-night hours compared to her male colleagues. Achia took that as a challenge and indeed stayed late for a project unknown to her boss. Later on, she handed her resignation as a way to say that if she's not going to be promoted to the title she deserves, why would she continue to put in the hard work? She stood up to her boss and sent out a clear message by raising her voice — gender should have nothing to do with whether or not a person should be promoted and be objectively based on the value an individual provides to the company.

“Women in tech still face a pervasive "Bro Culture". 72% of women in tech have worked at a company where there's a designated boys club.” [source]

Radia Funna, founder of Build n Blaze, had a rather non traditional path from law to operations to technology. When she joined Heidrick and Struggles, Funna noticed a “woman problem” where women seemed to be leaving after growing to a certain point in the company. Women were not being promoted, not because of any lack of ability, but because of a prominent boys club where they played squash, golf and formed the right connections that brought in more revenue for the company. Women were left out of such “networking” events and are still playing catch-up to this day. Experiences from her childhood and corporate life started her efforts to shift societal perceptions around gender disparity and help organisations move away from gender biases to attract broader and diverse potential; after all, well-managed diverse teams significantly outperform homogenous ones [source].

“Only 3% of female students would consider a career in technology as their first choice.” [source]

“Girls don't do science”. This is a recurring theme in the careers of successful women in technology. Early on, they're discouraged from taking up opportunities or even thinking about the possibilities of doing a career in STEM because it's not “the norm”.

Mei Lin Fung is the co-founder of People Centered Internet and helped invent Customer Relationship Management, now a $4 billion industry. She knew early on that tech could make a big difference and that she wanted to stay on the breaking wave of technology for the rest of her life. On multiple occasions, she was told that she couldn’t do something or she'll never be good at this, whether it was at school doing calculus or being questioned as a woman leader. Every setback spurred her on and became the very reason to succeed. Anything that she was told she couldn't do, she tried twice as hard.

Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Code Breaker, tells the story of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Jennifer Doudna, who, along with her colleagues and rivals, hit upon an invention that can transform the human race with a tool to edit DNA. As a sixth-grader, she read James Watson's, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, The Double Helix and found herself fascinated by science. Her curiosity in science was encouraged by her parents and constantly fuelled through reading and hunting for interesting things in nature with her dad. She was hurt and discouraged when told by her school's college counsellor that “girls don't do science”, but it also stiffened her resolve. Since embarking on her journey, each female professor or scientist (very few at the time), particularly Rosalind Franklin, reinforced her realisation that women indeed could be scientists.

A similar passion for science, particularly for space exploration, led Victoria Alonsoperez, founder and CEO of Chipsafer, on a winding journey. She did a course in electrical engineering and received a scholarship to International Aeronautics Congress. While working on a particular technology for satellites, she realised she could use similar tech for cattle monitoring in her region. Soon after, in 2012, she invented Chipsafer, a patented platform that can track cattle remotely and autonomously and won the International Telecommunication Union Young Innovators Competition. What has kept her spark going is the ability to solve problems with the technology at hand and have a positive impact on the society and environment.

Women can do science, in fact make it even better.

“The primary reasons why women are underrepresented in technology are lack of mentors and female role models in the field.” [source]

Throughout history, women have shattered barriers and paved the way for future generations and continue to do so.

Regina Honu, CEO of Soronko Academy, went through a period of discrimination and decided to use that experience to empower other women and girls in this space. As a social entrepreneur, her vision for Soronko Academy is to make digital skills more accessible to young people, especially girls and women in Africa.

Nila Achia, whose story we shared above, as the founder of Women in Digital (WID) has dedicated herself to promote women and girls’ education and empowerment through technology in Bangladesh.

Rubaba Dowla, Country Managing Director of Oracle Bangladesh, had had a rollercoaster ride in the telecommunications industry and was an integral part of it when it had only just taken off. Her experience in the industry without any female role models to look up to for guidance has helped her focus more on inclusivity and diversity to empower women to enter STEM fields of careers.

And with each woman in the field of tech, girls all over the world see the endless possibilities in this industry.

The fourth industrial revolution is already underway, and now more than ever, we need a seat for women at the table. As technology is enabling other industries to grow and innovate, women and girls should not be left behind.