Celebrating Girls and Women in ICT
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.
Technology is not always the first choice for a career. But women have found themselves in the sector. The fourth industrial revolution is disrupting almost every industry in every country.
Innovative technology in fields including artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing can potentially alter the way we live our lives. “In addition to being a key economic concern, inequality represents the greatest societal concern associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” [source]
Dorothy Gordon, Chair of UNESCO's Information for All Programme and a global leader in the field of technology and development, argues that technology is widening the equality gap and talks with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, but at the same time, she maintains that technology gives us the potential and possibilities to reduce that very inequality, given that the technology we use is kept in check and its impact on the society is monitored. She urges the youth in tech, particularly women and girls, to explore, do their research and stay up to date with the fast-paced field of technology.
Dr Eva-Marie Muller-Stuler, Advanced Analytics & AI Practice Leader/Chief Data Scientist for IBM, was drawn to data while doing her PhD in medical physics. Dr Eva-Marie loves everything to do with data and believes that data science is so much more than coding and doing Kaggle competitions; with the vast amounts of data available today, its real essence lies in solving societal issues.
Another unconventional route to the tech industry is Yu Ping Chan's journey. Her current role leading the Office of the United Nations' Envoy on Technology is a sharp contrast to her beginning. Yu Ping Chan started out as a Foreign Service officer, a diplomat with the Singaporean foreign ministry and hasn't had any formal education in tech. However, given the intertwined nature of tech in practically all industries, when at the UN Secretariat, she embraced the UN's idea on digital cooperation; how to better come together to harness the benefits of tech while mitigating its challenges. The world can do much better when it comes to rising to the challenge of our digital future. She has been an active voice when it comes to expressing the absolutely central role that technology plays in everything that international organisations do, with the ongoing pandemic highlighting this even more. Her atypical journey into technology is proof enough that one doesn't need a purely technical background to get into the industry.
These inspiring stories show that it’s not all doom-and-gloom for the outlook of women in tech. But we still have a long way to go.
“Only 5% of leadership positions in tech are held by women; 5% tech start-ups are owned by women, and only 11% of executive positions are occupied by women in Fortune 500 companies.” [source]
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the verdict of “what countries with the best COVID-19 responds have in common” is evident — women leaders. Women account for half the population, and we need to actively include women in important conversations and decisions to change the world for the better, for everyone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: UN Volunteer Shivangi Sareen
I'm a software engineer based in the UK. I graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 2019. I have a keen interest in data science, machine learning and in particular, natural language processing. I’m a firm believer in empowering girls and women to enter STEM fields of study and careers. I love reading books and blogging on Medium.
This blog post was inspired by episodes 31-40 of Talking Tech: Girls and Women in ICT, an intergenerational interview project in support of Girls in ICT Day 2020-2022 and of EQUALS. The project is run by ITU, UN ICC and the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth.
To watch the interviews and follow the updates please visit the Talking Tech playlist on the EQUALS YouTube Channel.