ICT4SDG | SDG5
July 18, 2017

Why we need more women in tech: voices from SE Asia

By ITU News

Closing the digital gender divide is crucial for progress on United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal No. 5: to “achieve gender equality and empower all girls and women.” And yet, there’s a long way to go.

The global Internet user gender gap was 12% in 2016, according to ITU data.

Women currently only make up some 30% of the European Union’s information and com­munication technology (ICT) workforce, and also women are vastly underrepresented in the Silicon Valley tech jobs.

The good news? Closing the digital gender divide is a significant opportunity for growth in today’s economy.

“I think we need more girls in tech, because we definitely have to start filling up the pipeline, all the way from the most junior fresh gradu­ates, all the way up to the C-suites, and even up to the Board,” says Jocelyn Teo, Advisory Board Member for Girls in Tech–Singapore. “Studies have shown that companies that have more diversity … throughout different levels, all the way up to the Board, are actually more profitable.”

On average, female-led, venture-backed tech­nology companies in the United States have 12% higher annual revenues and use one-third less capital than their male counterparts’ startups, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Cindy Padnos found in a 2013 white paper. Additionally, more women in the digital jobs market could create an annual Euro 9 billion boost to the EU’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to an October 2013 EU study.

“There needs to be a place where ladies can come together and inspire more ladies.” – Wan Ting Poh, Managing Director of Girls in Tech– Singapore.

Regional examples

As India, Malaysia and Singapore establish themselves as technology hubs in the South and Southeast Asia regions, these early days are a good time to insert women seamlessly into the tech employment equation. On a recent trip to the regions, ITU News asked women tech lead­ers why we need more women in the industry — and how to achieve it.

The numbers are already encouraging: some 30% of India’s tech workforce is female, com­pared to only about 21% in the United States. Singapore, meanwhile, had a 30% female rep­resentation in tech according to a 2014 survey by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA).

“It’s about changing mindsets,” says Wan Ting Poh, Managing Director of Girls in Tech– Singapore. “Girls can do technology as well, and they shouldn’t be afraid to do technology.”

This is not always easy, however, even for qual­ified women who face an isolating, male-dom­inated ICT workplace environment. “There are not a lot of girl data scientists around,” says Ms Poh. “I lead a team of six people, and I’m the only female.”

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So how can progress be achieved?

“What’s most important, is that girls or the young people have the chance to pursue their interest and to build confidence. A lot of the time they show a passion for it, they show interest for it, but somehow, along the way, it was being shut down, either because of stereotypes, or cul­tural perceptions,” Ms Tan said. “But you should pursue your interest if you like science, if you like maths.”

Overcoming these stereotypes requires an enabling environment to help women enter the industry.

“There needs to be a place where ladies can come together and inspire more ladies,” Ms Poh said. “It’s not because of reasons like we are not physically strong enough to do it, it’s not some­thing that we cannot work on. It’s more reasons like maybe they feel scared to come into this industry that is male dominated, and they don’t have this support system there to tell them that, yes, they can do it as well.”

And this does have an impact; Singapore’s government is also working to encourage young children to participate in tech through fun and engaging activities such as their Lab on Wheels programme. One result is that young girls can see and develop their capabili­ties, and change mindsets.

“When I saw my brother working on technology I thought it was really complicated and some­times even he couldn’t figure it out,” Jessica, a student at Rosyth School told ITU News. “I had never actually programmed a robot before, and on second thoughts now, I am actually thinking about joining robotics as my CCA (Co-Curricular Activity).”

Rise to the challenge, reap the rewards

Ms Poh’s has some words of encouragement for women who are considering a career in this exciting and fast-paced environment: “Don’t be afraid to step up and say, ’can do it too!’ ”

Despite the difficulties, encouraging more women in tech can have a profoundly positive impact beyond boosting the national GDP. The individual benefits of a career in tech can be enormous. “It’s been a rewarding journey. It has taught me how to look for things myself and not be dependent on others. The Internet has opened a door to the world. It has opened lots of opportunities,” says Jigyasa Grover, Director of Women Who Code Delhi. “More women in tech means more ideas and more awesomeness!”

By Lucy Spencer (@inquisitivelucy), ITU News

© All Photos: Julie Marchand/ITU News

[For more on-the-ground examples of how ICTs are accelerating the SDGs, read the latest edition of ITU News Magazine.]

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