This is how it feels like to be a woman in tech in Pakistan
March 8th marks International Women’s Day. This year’s theme “Pledge For Parity” advocates creating equal opportunities for women’s advancement and leadership to create prosperous economic conditions globally.
According to a study conducted by World Bank in 2014, Pakistan’s population is over 196 million and women make up 48% of that. Despite being in such a large chunk, women are constituting a very low number in the labor force of the country. And if we drill down the gloomy figures for the technology industry, the number gets more desperate.
Amongst the South Asian countries: Bhutan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Pakistan has the lowest number of women participating in workforce. Furthermore, a South Asia Research Program’s report on women employment in Pakistan highlights that proportion of women workforce in white collar jobs remains significantly low. To put things in perspective, let’s take a look at labor force in whole World, United States, India and Pakistan.
Women in Pakistan make 24.8% of the whole labor force, and percentage of female employment was measured 11.70% as of 2014. Whereas, a study conducted by P@SHA in 2012 revealed that women make 14% of technology industry of Pakistan — yet again, a very low figure (Women in US make 26% of their technology industry). The report further revealed the increasingly low number of women being promoted to the higher management position.
Why do female professionals quit their careers?
A major chunk of women leave workplaces at mid-level, a very crucial stage for their careers, owing to dissatisfaction, starting a family, personal issues, or further studies.
Rabia Kanwal, System Analyst at REDMATH – a software house in Lahore told TechJuice,
“In my professional career of 5 years, I have seen numerous girls leaving the workplace right after their marriage. After marriage, it becomes increasingly difficult for women to manage their personal and professional life. Specially in our country, where, generally, women are expected to lead everything related to home. It is not surprising to see women making sacrifices for home making. ”
An alarmingly low number of companies offer maternity leaves. Telenor Pakistan has taken several measures for encouraging women to continue jobs even after marriage and child bearing. Their 6 months paid maternity leave and ‘naya aghaaz’ (new start) for women was a sweet surprise for many, who are ambitious about their professional and personal goals.
Hostile environment, unequal training and development opportunities are also some key issues that lead to women becoming frustrated and quitting their careers. It is to be noted here that, less than 25% of the companies have mentorship or training programs for their female workforce.
Saima*, on condition of anonymity, told TechJuice,
“If we are to increase the ratio of women at workplaces, improvement of culture is very important. There are so many stereotypes attached to women in tech worldwide. Pakistan is no different. We will have to create the awareness that skill set is not defined by gender. Any individual can be an expert in anything, women are great coders, managers and leaders. But, when they are not given equal pay, equal progress opportunities, and equal importance at work. They leave, or switch their careers altogether.”
One of the potential reasons for mid-career impasse includes lack of female leadership representation and the discrimination between promotions and appraisals for male and female employees.
Tooba Atif, Software Engineer at Oracle, told TechJuice,
“I was the first girl in my family to enter this field, which everyone assumed to be of boys only. They also thought girls didn’t have the mindset to ‘think out of the box’.
When I finally got the job, they concluded it’s because of some reference, otherwise girls are not that capable to secure a position which actually is suitable for a man.”
Commenting on whether her male peers encourage her for her professional endeavors, she said,
“Unlike Pakistan, my male counterparts in Australia always encourage me to work, learn and gain specialized experience to change the tech scene for women. They tend to give me examples of women managing home and work life successfully and they always appreciate my work which boosts my confidence.”
Although, a recent study revealed that women are competent coders however gender bias still prevails. This bias however, is a global concern which has created a career plateau for women with work experience of 8-15 years. There is also a significant decrease in the number of experienced women in tech. This only reflects the challenges faced by working women in personal and professional lives.
These desperate figures call for desperate actions to empower the women in the country.
What are the global and local initiatives to promote women in tech?
In the past 5 years, international movements targeting women have been triggered in order to raise awareness and bring women into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. Girls Who Code is one such initiative that has been targeting high school females to learn code in order to pursue CS majors. Girls in Tech is also empowering women in technology through hackathons and bootcamps. Similarly, Anita Borg Institute was established in the memory of Anita Borg, an American computer scientist who founded the Institute for Women and Technology. The institute has been providing guidance and assistance to women pursuing technology on a global platform. IEEE also established a Women in Engineering wing, that has grown as the largest professional international organization dedicated to provide professional and academic opportunities to women engineers and scientists.
The existence and popularity of other global initiatives such as Girls in Tech and STEM Women highlights that negative stereotypes attached with women pursuing science fields are inherent in all societies, be it the eastern or western culture. Women are considered fragile to pursue field works and discover innovations.
Jaya Rajwani, Chairperson WiE NEDUET Chapter and an undergraduate student of Computer & Information Systems shares:
“There certainly are a lot of stereotypes about girls who code. Being in our society, people think that us, girls, are not meant to be here. Every time we are targeted as we can not solve the difficult coding problems, find bugs or complete our projects in time. This gender discrimination brings down the confidence of girls who are actually interested in technology and want to pursue it professionally.”
To encourage women to pursue entrepreneurial ventures and set up businesses, Prime Minister Youth Business Loan Scheme fixed a quota of fifty percent for women. World Bank launched WomenX Pakistan program in collaboration with IBA-CED, Women’s INC and Enclude to support women pursuing their own ventures. The program has also supported various tech and digital ventures to provide mentorship and access to professional networks. Moreover, the annual P@SHA ICT Awards, has also introduced the award category of “Best Gender Diversity” to promote workplace diversity in IT companies.
How to encourage women to pursue STEM careers
To offer sustainable careers for female workforce in engineering fields, it is essential to address workplace diversity through reduction of gender stereotyping, promoting equal opportunities and providing HR benefits. It should be noted here that a balanced work environment will elevate women satisfaction. Therefore equal professional opportunities will contribute towards GDP growth.
One of the concerns that need immediate attention is the absence of sensible work-hours policy with reasonable late sittings. Progressive corporate policies should be formulated that provide women with flexible work timings and options to work from home and switch between work loads for part-time and full-time projects. To support female workers challenged by motherhood, day care facilities and transportation services can also be an added advantage.
“If offices have flexible timings, options to work from home, part time or at least day care center facilities. I don’t see why women wouldn’t be getting back to work again.” said Rabia Kanwal with confidence.
A huge number of women has also fallen prey to gender inequality at workplace in terms of provision of training and opportunities to transition into senior management positions. Women with considerable experience in the industry have been vocal about the limited representation of female project managers. The crux of the issue lies in the stereotype that male managers are inclined towards trusting male employees with management responsibilities.
“For girls taking CS, I would recommend them to do some freelancing work along with their academics. This will boost their technical skills, experience and broaden their mindset. And they won’t have to wait for 4 years to kick off their career.
Another thing is to educate their families about women making progress in tech so they know marriage is not the ultimate goal of girls now and they should support their daughters who want to build careers for themselves to make a positive change.” said Tooba Atif.
The need of the hour is to let go of medieval thinking and celebrate the Pakistani women in tech so that it encourages young girls to take the plunge as well. An air of mutual respect and concern needs to be fostered in our workplaces. Steps taken now will only prove pivotal in the long rung. Men and women both have an equal right to play their part in Pakistan’s future!
Image source – Telenor, *name changed, Additional reporting by Fatima Rizwan and Maryam Dodhy.