Not left behindICT development must reach all members of society
The ICT sector in Nepal is disproportionately filled by men. Coders and programmers are, by default thought to be men. Despite outnumbering men in the 2011 census, women in Nepal make up a meagre fraction of the field. According to the Association of Academies and Societies of Sciences in Asia (AASSA), women represent only 5 to 10 percent of the Information Technology workforce.
As the Government of Nepal launches its ‘Digital Nepal’ initiative, many have pointed to its potentials in opening up new avenues for ICTs in Nepal’s development. Further investment in this sector holds the potential to radically change the way people work, interact, enjoy and even live in this era. These changes are already underway as seen with increasing usage of and dependence on mobile technology from social media, to remote jobs to even experiments with remote surgery. This is a revolutionary movement toward progress and it is important that no social group is left behind—including women. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2020, 90 percent of jobs will require ICT skills, and some 2 million new jobs will be created in fields of science, technology, education, and mathematics. In such a setting, the exclusion of women from this movement will skew their reach toward equality.
ICTs can increase women and girls’ access to the public space, and strengthen their ability to voice themselves. Technology holds inherent potentials to overcome several social restrains. In many parts of the world, tasks such as taking care of children and ailing family members, and carrying out domestic chores are seen as the primary domains of women. While challenging these dominant narratives and realities requires deeper structural changes, ICTs can enable women to become independent in the meantime—financially and otherwise—by ensuring that they can work remotely and with flexible working hours.
A challenge in ensuring that the field of ICT is inclusive and accessible to women is the continued lack of representation. When young girls do not see women being represented in such fields, a dangerous assumption is propagated: These spaces are not meant for women.
In Nepal, there have been some grounded initiatives that have motivated women to come to the forefront in this field and address the gap in representation. Women Leaders in Technology (WLiT) is a Nepali movement that provides mentoring to women in technology to receive technical and leadership skills from other women experts in the form of year-long fellowship during their studies. To date, there have been 60 WLiT fellows. Apart from fellowships, WLiT has also organised more than 30 events and workshops to develop women as coders.
When reflecting on her experiences in the program, Angela Shakaya, a 2017 WLiT Fellow, mentioned that she learned to develop her communication skills, along with technical and programming skills during the fellowship. She also learned to factor in the users’ perspective while creating websites to make them useful and appealing —which she says has been very worthwhile in her journey in the world of technology. The country has also seen the emergence of other local initiatives such as MakerKT, Miss Tech among others. Such initiatives are important in engaging women in technology from a younger age— when it is easier for them to overcome biases and conditioned difficulties.
There are also organisations that have a specific interest in increasing both women’s access and expertise in technology in the country. Kathmandu Living Labs is one such example. Among other things, it offered specialised ICTs skill development training to civil society organisations in different local governments in the country. The participation of women in such trainings has seen an increase and participants such as Apsara Karki, Executive Director of SOCH Nepal, mentioned that after the training by KLL, she felt empowered. However, there is still a long way to go before women feel self-reliant in solving technological challenges. One way to remedy this is to start early by encouraging girls in schools to not look at the field of Information technology as an insurmountable problem. This is more important now as research suggests that gender stereotypes about children’s’ own intellect emerge at an early age—which is a precondition for the decisions they make about their career. WLiT and Kathmandu Living Labs has also worked on this, by developing programs to train high school girls on community mapping and making them familiar with open geographic data.
Furthermore, it would be incorrect to argue that all tools developed by males are insensitive to the needs of women. Yet, women developers can address specific challenges faced by women, that may not be experienced by men. The experiences of one of the co-authors, Sushma Giri, a board member of WLiT and the only female developer at KLL, can attest to this. Reflecting on her difficulties in locating a public toilet during an emergency situation, she advocated for the importance of public databases to help people locate public toilets and highlighted this issue as a gender-based sanitation problem. This realisation spearheaded into the Toilet Mapping Initiative. This is what happens when a workforce is diverse—issues often overlooked come to the fore.
The way forward
A prerequisite in encouraging women to join the ICT field is to ensure that they have access to technology so that they can hone their skills from an early age. To ensure equitable access to ICTs, the civil society can advocate for equitable distribution of resources to overcome all forms of the digital divide—economic, social, gender-based and so on. Organisations can also learn from initiatives of governments to distribute technological tools to women and college students, as seen in India. While the sustainability of such initiatives is questionable, these are excellent transitional interventions that can accelerate social changes. This is even more important because research done in 2018 found that women in low-and middle-income countries are, on average, 10 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men, which translates into 184 million fewer women owning mobile phones. More alarmingly, even when women own mobile phones, there is a significant gender gap in the usage of services such as mobile internet.
Measurable change requires sustained efforts. While these programs are steps in the right direction and directly address the representation gap, it is important to supplement these initiatives by ensuring that all workplaces are inclusive of women. As more women enter the IT field, their voices and needs must be met in their places of work. This inclusivity must manifest in numbers and changed mindsets—ultimately challenging the perception that this field is only for men.
Giri is an android app developer at Kathmandu Living Labs and Singh is a socio-technical researcher at Kathmandu Living Labs.