Why aren’t there more women in IT?When Nhasala Joshi joined the Advanced College of Engineering and Management in Kupondole, she was the only woman in her Electronics Engineering class. Later, as the semester progressed, the number of women grew to three, still a heavily lopsided gender ratio.
When Nhasala Joshi joined the Advanced College of Engineering and Management in Kupondole, she was the only woman in her Electronics Engineering class. Later, as the semester progressed, the number of women grew to three, still a heavily lopsided gender ratio.
Joshi’s experience is not an anomaly—the gender ratio when it comes to STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is woefully unbalanced. And it is not just a Nepali problem either; worldwide, there is a distinct lack of women in STEM fields, including Information Technology (IT).
In Silicon Valley, the IT hub of the world, most startups were founded by men and these companies grew under the leadership of men. So it is no wonder that they are mostly staffed by men. But many large tech companies around the world have understood this problem, with entrepreneurs like Jack Ma stating that the IT industry can never grow without women. And yet, women still struggle to find a stable foothold in tech.
In Nepal, women, despite constituting a majority of the working age population, are still underrepresented in the labour force, especially in leadership positions. According to the 2017/18 Nepal Labour Force Survey conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics, while the male to female working age population ratio in Nepal is 100:125, the ratio of employment is a mere 100:59. Women are still absent from managerial positions since less than 1 out of 7 managers in the country are female according to the same survey. It is evident from these statistics that women are largely absent from the labour force. And it doesn’t help that upper-level positions in lucrative IT industries are still considered exclusive men’s clubs.
This discrepancy is largely a reflection of gendered employment models, where some sectors continue to be seen as the exclusive domain of men and others of women.
“When I was young, everything to do with computers would default to my brothers,” says 28-year-old Pranita Shrestha, a computer science and technology student at Tsinghua University in China. “I loved computers and when I wanted my turn at a computer game, I received immediate opposition from my relatives. During those days, I would be expected to stay in the kitchen while my male cousins would be on their computers or Gameboys.”
Even in school and college, women are still largely outnumbered in IT classes. When Shrestha joined Apex College for her undergraduate in Computer Information Systems, she was just one of six female students in a class of 48. Eeda Rijal, currently studying at the Nepal Engineering College, similarly reports that she is among just eight female students in her class of 40.
Unfortunately for young women, this gender disparity follows them even after they graduate. Most large IT companies in Nepal are still dominated by men. Shrestha was the only female employee during her internship in the support and development department of one popular IT firm while Rijal says that she is the only woman in her current office.
“It becomes difficult for women to work in a workplace that is primarily dominated by men,” says Rijal. “It becomes difficult for women to talk about certain issues when it comes to health and it also saps confidence from young women when they have to work with an all-male team.”
For young women, a lack of female colleagues and supervisors can create cultural and behavioural issues, which can then lead to anxiety and difficulty fitting in, says Rijal.
An informal survey of some of Nepal’s biggest IT companies illustrates just how stark this gender disparity is. For instance, Deerwalk has two women, out of 10 positions, in upper management, while Braindigit’s leadership and management team is composed completely of three men. Cloudfactory’s 13-person leadership team also consists only of two female professionals.
“There are very few female role-models in the IT sector for young women to look up to,” says Joshi. “In a male-dominated field like IT, young female IT professional needs individuals to look up to and find mentors who can guide them. There have been countless instances where I don’t know what to do to further my career in IT and having mentors to help through personal and professional problems would help young women like me move up the corporate ladder in IT fields.”
This is a problem that numerous young women report. Shrestha almost didn’t pursue IT since she didn’t know anyone she could relate to and didn’t have anyone who could guide her.
Recognising this lack of role models, a number of individuals and women-led organisations have taken it upon themselves to guide and help others like them by establishing support organisations, and conducting workshops and events to empower young women in the field. Organisations like MakerKT, Girls in Technology, Women Leaders in Technology (WLiT), Women Techmakers, Women in ICT are creating networks of women in STEM fields to support and guide each other. Shrestha, Rijal and Joshi have all helped mentor young women studying or working in the field of IT at one point or the other. Joshi is currently working as Programme Manager for Women Leaders in Technology (WLiT), and Rijal is currently Chief Executive Officer at SochWare, a local IT company.
Supported by such efforts, young women today are not just limiting themselves to Nepal; these young IT professionals are taking part in international conferences where they speak about the lack of women in their fields of work. Shrestha recently attended Google’s Women Techmakers programme that took place in Google’s Singapore Office in October 2018, and Joshi recently attended the 2019 Google I/O, an annual developer’s conference that takes place in California.
Attending such international conferences has helped participants understand the lack of women in IT is not just a Nepali problem, they say. Much like her experience in Nepal, Shrestha says that even in her current class at Tsinghua University in China, only five out of the 26 students are female. Shrestha says that during her time at the Women Techmakers Summit, numerous representatives spoke of the same problem in their own countries.
While the STEM gender gap is an international issue, many large companies are attempting to address it. But this has yet to translate to Nepali companies, where the gender disparity is very stark. Nepali companies too need to learn from international efforts and make a conscious effort to build spaces for women in the tech industry. Internationally, many women have taken up senior leadership positions in many big tech companies—Susan Wojcicki is currently CEO of YouTube, Ginni Rommetty the CEO of IBM, and Sheryl Sandberg the COO of Facebook. These women are the three most powerful women in tech, according to Forbes, in a healthy list of 20 others who hold powerful positions in some of the world’s biggest tech industries.
While much of the problem stems from a continuing gendered perspective when it comes to employment, there is much that Nepali technology schools and tech companies can do. For one, proactive efforts to reach out to women interested in studying technology can go a long way, as the numerous coding workshops that take place across the country have shown. Companies can then work to elevate women to leadership positions. There might be bias in the workplace to elevate men ahead of women; this needs to be recognised. The more women there are in tech, the more they will inspire others to join.