These two women are battling the gender biased technology industry by teaching coding to young girls
In 2018, the ‘Global Gender Gap Index 2018’ report ranked Pakistan the second worst country in the world in terms of gender parity.
Amongst other factors, the report highlighted that the percentage of women in the workplace is declining in Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistan ranks 136, amongst 190 countries in the ‘Ease Of Doing Business Index’ by The World Bank.
These stats combined, portrays a grim image of the country’s situation for women who want to work or take the lead and venture into entrepreneurship.
TechJuice talks to two of the three founders of CodeGirls, a Karachi based community-funded coding, and business skills boot camp for girls belonging to the middle to low-income families, with no prior tech education. The founders Faiza Yousuf and Shamim Rajani, are striving to make tech more inclusive and accessible to women.
We chat about their journey as tech entrepreneurs in Pakistan, their latest venture and why Pakistan needs more women to join the world of technology.
Faiza Yousuf is a technologist and an educationist with almost a decade of experience in the industry. Born into a culturally conservative family, where getting an education in a male-centric field was discouraged, “I was the first female in the family to get a graduate and then a post-grad degree in computing,” she said, “Education was only for maintenance and not a license to join the workforce”.
Shamim Rajani too was born into a culturally conservative family and was married at the mere age of 17. Luckily, her husband pushed her to get an education. Initially, she wanted to pursue medicine but due to circumstances couldn’t. “When my daughter turned four, I told my husband I would want to re-start my education and he agreed,” she recollected. It was while surfing through a newspaper in 1998, she found an opportunity, “It was a collaboration between NCR and AT&T. They were offering a diploma in computing which was equivalent to a degree,” she recalls, “It was near my house and only available option at the time.”
“I was merely a graduate when I got my first offer. They (my extended family) were of the view that if men are struggling to find jobs, how can a woman get one,” — Faiza
Faiza remembers how her first job came as a surprise to her and her family, “I was merely a graduate when I got my first offer. They (my extended family) were of the view that if men are struggling to find jobs, how can a woman get one,” she explained. Technology not only opened doors for her but allowed her family to become more accepting of the fact that girls can work, “To blow my own trumpet, I did become a role model of sorts. They now remember their initial thoughts and exclaim ‘oh that sounds stupid’,” she laughed.
Likewise, Shamim started her first venture right after finishing her diploma, “My father wanted to start a computer training institute in Karachi on social grounds,” she said as she described her first start-up, ConsulNet Cooperation, which trains students in computing languages and skills. Within five years of its inception, they had four branches across Karachi and trained almost 800 students every day, free of cost.
During her days at ConsulNet, Shamim was approached by a UK based client to build a website, “Before that day I had not thought of venturing into a commercial entity,” she shares. GeneTech Solutions was hereafter born, “The company grew organically with bootstrapping. It now has over 60 employees (20% of whom are women),” she claims.
Being the only woman in tech in a room
“I was usually the first or the only woman recruit in a company,” claims Faiza as she recalls working in organizations where men would be in ample. She did not think it was going to be any different, “it seemed like the norm”. It was only after WomenX Pakistan’s program which she attended between 2013-2014, her perspective on how female relationships and partnerships can work changed.
She also realized that there was a scarcity in the representation of women in tech (on local and international forums). She wondered, “aren’t there other women in the tech industry in Pakistan who would like to teach or talk to a female colleague about their work.” Therefore, she founded WomenInTechPk, a closed Facebook group in 2016, where Pakistani women in tech can network and connect with each other. She also met Shamim through this community.
Currently, with over 5000 group members Faiza remains surprised how the group has blown up and become a platform for people to interact, discuss technology, find opportunities/ role models/ business partners and grow together. The group over the years has helped improve the representation of women in the tech industry on national and international platforms.
“While I represented women in tech at P@SHA and other platforms, it often felt lonely. It still is, but we are improving,” — Shamim.
Shamim too deliberates that she often feels lonely in a room full of tech enthusiasts, “While I represented women in tech at the Pakistan Software Houses Association – P@SHA and other platforms, I often felt lonely. It still is, but we are improving,” she said.
Shamim recognized a number of issues in the system that lead her to the development of CodeGirls,
- Lack of quality workers in the field due to the gap between the tech industry and academia. “Whenever we hire a fresh graduate, we usually have to undo and redo their entire education,” she said.
- Lack of women available or willing to work in the tech industry. “I believe girls are amazing managers, super organized, loyal and hardworking but whenever I wanted to hire them I couldn’t find any,” she stresses. This she asserts is an issue other software houses owned by men/women alike also claim to have faced.
“Making a career in this field doesn’t require a degree, anyone who has skills can earn as much as I do. Which I think is the most unique aspect of this field,” – Faiza
In a conversation with Shamim, Hassnain Walji (their third partner), shared that he wants to do something which could make Pakistan’s tech landscape more inclusive of women and asked Shamim if she could train more girls to be like herself, “He instantly said I would sponsor 100 girls if you are ready. The next thing I did was call up Faiza,” said Shamim.
Faiza too wanted to start training of sorts through the WomenInTechPK platform where women could be taught the fundamentals of technology and coding skills. “When Shamim called me and asked me to write up a plan, I instantly agreed and said I can do it overnight for you because I was already working on something similar,” she said.
Fazia believes that technology is an excellent equalizer, “It has changed my life and those of the people around me. It can become a source of easy finance for families,” she said as she cited reasons for why she was interested in starting CodeGirls, “Making a career in this field doesn’t require a degree, anyone who has skills can earn as much as I do. Which I think is the most unique aspect of this field,” she said.
The idea for CodeGirls was conceived in April 2018 and its first cohort began in July. The program enrolls 120 females in each phase between the ages of 15 to 30 for 15 weeks. The first phase consists of 101 hours of coding workshops, 24 hours of non-coding (business & soft skills) workshops and ends with a final project and viva to ensure that the graduating cohorts meet the set standard and can be moved to next phases of the program, “All the girls have to pay an initial registration fees of PKR 500, pass a zero test and an interview which would ascertain that the sponsorship is being spent on the right people,” explained Shamim.
Once the classes start, every student is not only taught the basics and intricacies of technology but the team also works on their life skills and character building, “The non-tech skills makes them emotionally intelligent and mature. These classes are conducted by women who are successful in their specific industry. When girls talk to them it makes them hopeful,” said Shamim
Fazia’s believes that technology is an excellent equalizer.
Though the main purpose to start CodeGirls was to infiltrate more women into the tech landscape of the country Shamim explained that not all girls end up in the workforce, “Not all of these girls are here for jobs. There are students or women who want to re-enter the field and polish their skills, seek mentorship or mothers who want to be able to tutor their children with confidence,” she said
To ensure that the curriculum remains up to date with the current local and global tech needs, it is regularly updated and vetted, “Initially, we did a survey within the industry about what type of human resources are needed and we laid out our advance tracks. We also asked tech organizations to vet the training plan which keeps the quality of education immaculate on our end,” Shamim further elaborated.
They claim that not all the students come with enthusiasm for technology and learning but as the course takes off they show more and more interest, “After phase one they are usually more invested and want to complete the whole course (phase two and three) or get jobs and continue working,” she boasted.
Challenges women face while working in Tech
“I am making rotis while I give you this interview. Everyone needs to find their own balance and have a lot of patience.” – Shamim
Both the female founders agree that maintaining the work-life balance can take a toll on a working woman’s domestic life. While Faiza continuously sacrifices sleep to keep her personal and professional life afloat, Shamim claims that it is very difficult to come up with a single formula to do this, “I am making rotis while I give you this interview. Everyone needs to find their own balance and have a lot of patience,” she said adding, “As women, we are juggling a number of roles, unlike men, it is crucial we be patient as our families need time to adjust to the changes too,”.
They agreed that family pressure is one of the many reasons women do not opt to work in the tech field which should be otherwise, as tech is one of the few fields which enables people to work remotely, “Just because it is a field which put woman on an equal pedestal as men it is discouraged,” said Faiza. She further pressed that family support is also crucial, “If mine or even Shamim’s family removes their support we might collapse. Because when you live in a house you will have to contribute to whatever the chores are,” she added.
They further explained that it is also due to the lack of tech resources at home and transportation issues that hold women back, “their families won’t allow them to work in areas away from their homes – even within the same city, work odd hours or travel locally,” said Faiza. Keeping this in mind, CodeGirls has introduced a number of classes in the third phase to teach the participants how to freelance from home.
As a solution to provide tech resources, CodeGirls incentives laptops to 10 top performers in each cohort, “We have also been approached by various organizations who can micro-finance or sponsor laptops to other girls,” said Shamim.
“Even if (the girls) are bright and enjoy coding they think they won’t be able to make it work but once we counsel them their attitudes change.” – Faiza
The team has further identified some personality traits in women which they are willing to work on during the course of the program. Lack of confidence tops this list, “Even if they are bright and enjoy coding they think they won’t be able to make it work but once we counsel them their attitudes change,” said Faiza.
Case in point, during their graduation project, the girls in the first cohort were asked to present their projects to a room full of techies and they were terrified, “but when we helped them practice their pitches and projects, they just stole the show. They just needed a push,” she smiled.
Imagining an inclusive future of tech in Pakistan
Most companies in Pakistan are profiting even if they do not include women into their workforce but the team at CodeGirls believes that this practice will have to change in the near future, “International research tells us that inclusion brings in more profits, business and diversity of ideas and it makes a complete business scene,” said Faiza.
She also added that men also need to be on the same page to speed up the process, “We try to give voices to women as much as possible through different platforms but men do not take working women seriously, even if they aren’t openly misogynist,” she said.
“International research tells us that inclusion brings in more money, business and diversity of ideas and it makes a complete business scene,” – Faiza
She further added that women also need to change their ways if they want to excel in any field, “People would not care about women leaving their careers for whatever reason. It is our job to become excellent learners and optimize our skills regularly.”
Shamim agrees and adds that even though everyone seems to be on the same fronts about women inclusion into the workforce the true essence seems to be missing, “We need a lot more men on board to accelerate the process. It is the buzz of the town, but there is no essence it in all. The actual execution is missing,” she said.
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