Fariha Rashid is a telecommunications professional working at Grameenphone – a leading telecom operator in Bangladesh. Having completed her Bachelor's degree in Computer Science and Information Communication Technology (ICT) in 2014, Fariha managed to secure an internship with one of the largest telecom operators in the country, and was offered a permanent position within the next few months.
Such a career path is quite common for many people working in the tech industry – acquiring a degree, getting a job and then working their way upwards. However, it isn't usually the same for a woman, particularly in Bangladesh.
“When I got this job, people within my family tried to make me realize that I was choosing the wrong career path,” says Fariha. “Even if they are doing exceptionally well in their work and getting appreciated by their employers, people think women shouldn't work in ICT,” she added.
But, seeing her love for computers since childhood, Fariha's parents always inspired her to fulfil her goals and to even attend international conferences on computer science abroad. She believes that it is imperative for families of girls who are interested in the technology industry to provide them with full freedom and support.
Overcoming challenges in the family
Apart from playing a central role in the family, contributions made by women in Bangladesh to the economy and social development is at least at par, if not greater than their male counterparts. Yet, when it comes to the tech industry, in a developing nation like ours, women are still underrepresented and their visibility still seems pale in comparison to that of Bill gates and Steve Jobs. This under-representation includes not only professionals who are females but also students in universities. Why so few? - we then ask ourselves.
To this, Shamma M Raghib, Director of Business Development at CritiCare Research Center Pvt Ltd and Business Consultant at Experian Data Quality in Sydney, Australia, answered, “I think one of the key reasons is that young girls do not see a lot of dominant science and engineering backgrounds in the Bangladeshi media. How many women have you heard of doing cool things in technology last week in the news? What about the last two weeks, last few months, or even last year? I can probably name just one or two really prominent women in tech who were out there promoting themselves and their work. I think more women should be bold enough to promote their work in this field.”
“Most of these amazing women work their magic within the silos of their own organizations and are not put forward by their colleagues for showcasing their achievements to the world. If you have one female who is excelling in data science, data analysis, robotics, programming, and so on – promote them as speakers, leaders and visionaries in your write-ups. When more girls read stories about what they could potentially become one day, I am sure their confidence to pursue male dominated careers will surpass their fears of failure,” added Shamma, talking about empowering women in the digital platform.
Because of certain societal stereotypes and preconceived cultural norms, girls are generally discouraged by their families and teachers from pursuing challenging jobs in computer science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. Rather, teachers and families always try to fit girls into home-making or jobs which are “safe” in their opinion. Thus, most women tend to give up or not opt for studying and working in ICT, despite having an interest in the subject. Children start picking up gender stereotypes in almost everything from their childhood – be it colours, toys or cartoon characters.
“Most of these amazing women work their magic within the silos of their own organizations and are not put forward by their colleagues for showcasing their achievements to the world.
Shamma shared quite an interesting perception in this regard. “Believe it or not, my personal belief is that it all comes down to computer games! Even though mainstream computer games were actually created about 30 odd years ago, the games are pretty male-centric till today. The incorporation of female gaming characters came many, many years later. Little boys wanting to become computer programmers when they grow up comes from their dreams of creating their own computer games or programs. At schools, children are taught about it from a theoretical perspective and not purpose-driven programming, whereas, at home, girls may not like playing computer games that focus on male characters, because they can't relate to it much,” she remarks.
“Not many females are gamers and thus opt for less programming oriented engineering – like Telecom Engineering (myself being one of those who fell into the trap of hopefully getting a job in a booming telecom sector, and not following my passion to major in computer science),” said Shamma.
Also, many women feel that the greatest challenge to their career is marriage. After crossing a certain age, families begin to pressurize women to get married and have kids. Eventually, having kids leads most women to leave their jobs.
Importance of investing in skills
Although women like Luna Shamsuddoha, Founder and Chairman, Dohatec New Media and Sonia Bashir Kabir, Managing Director, Microsoft Bangladesh, have been contributing greatly to the society over the last few decades – building admirable careers in technology or running their own organizations – the tech industry still continues to be male dominated. “At times, I've felt that my male colleagues were able to build stronger relationships with my superiors, whereas I've had to pay from my own pocket for research on many occasions. Women working in this field need to be really persistent,” says Mehruba Reza, who's working at another major telecom operator in Bangladesh.
Even if women enter the ICT sector, they often end up in administrative or secretarial jobs and have to work much harder to prove themselves than their male counterparts. “Bangladeshi tech leaders should think more practically. If women aren’t involved in this field, not only are they missing out on some of the fastest-growing and highest-paying jobs, but the corporations are also missing out on the brainpower that these women can bring to the table. So having an equal representation of male and female tech leaders will visually encourage more girls in tech streams. Moreover, the gaming industry can play a significant role here, but that problem is not specific to Bangladesh – it is a global problem. When creating new games we should make it appealing to both males and females,” said Shamma, when asked how we can support and promote achievements of women in ICT.
“Why do you think most of the future AI robots are females? Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Sophia have all resulted from the need to design a more human centric AI robot incorporating compassion and the tendency to nurture – something that females are born with. So when we put the future of tech in the hands of female programmers, that is when we can truly learn how to make technology work for us, instead of against us,” she says.
Encouraging women's participation in the ICT workforce
It's only a matter of breaking the myths and putting an end to deeply embedded negative perceptions. The government is recognizing the benefits of ICT training and increasing female participation in the tech industry. In 2015, the government’s ICT Division announced a three-year project which began in January 2016, to provide ICT training to more than 240,000 women. Several groups like the Bangladesh Computer Council, Bangladesh Women in Technology, and the World Bank have been working to provide opportunities and support for women who are keen to learn and improve their ICT skills.