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January 15, 2019

A platform to bridge the gender gap in tech sector

Karachi

January 15, 2019

Noreen Naz took a huge risk leaving a comfortable school job to enrol in a course to learn a skill she had never heard of before, yet a skill that has and continues to significantly alter how we live, communicate and socialise. She was about to learn web development or coding, the process of designing websites, software and apps.

Coding is a process of talking to web pages, building websites and making them interactive for users. It is the language that drives the many apps and software that have become ubiquitous to modern life. The most common coding languages are HTML, which sets the web page’s design such as header, image and text boxes; CSS, which sets text, font, colour, links, interactivity, etc; and JavaScript, which adds functionality to links and buttons on web pages.

The myriad of letters, symbols, numbers and words that make up computer or software code can look like intimidating hieroglyphs to the uninitiated when flashing on a screen. So, naturally the first few lectures were difficult for Naz to keep up with up and the 24-year-old, who had no prior computer science knowledge, found herself losing confidence in her ability to continue with the course.

However, she didn’t give up and with consistent help and encouragement by the lead trainer, Sarah Ahmed, Naz soon found herself learning and enjoying the process of web development. “It never felt like we can’t do this because we don’t come from a computer science background,” she said. “That’s a great thing.”

Naz is among the 50 students who graduated in November from Tech Karo, a project by social entrepreneurship organisation CIRCLE that aims to narrow the gender gap in the country’s tech industry by enabling women to enter the field of programming and web development.

Tech forward

During the eight-month-long Tech Karo programme that started in February, students were taught the three basic coding languages, HTML, CSS and JavaScript, as well as life skills such as teamwork, communication skills and self-care at the Usman Institute of Technology. Leaders from the tech industry were also invited to the sessions to mentor the students once a month.

Students such as Naz worked on developing a functioning replica of a weather website, a news site, cricket site, calculator as well as replicas of WhatsApp, Facebook and Gmail user interface. According to Tech Karo Program Manager Tuba Mohsin, the target audience for this course were mostly women having little or no background in computer science, coming from low-income financial background and from underserved areas such as Korangi, Malir, Lyari, Khuda Ki Basti and Garden. Although the programme was focused on enrolling mostly women, male students who applied, passed the short entry test and detailed interviews were also selected. Sixty two per cent of the class was women, she said, adding that a minimal fee of Rs500 was charged per month, but scholarships were also given to students who could not afford it.

At the end of the course, 32 of its graduates managed to secure paid internships at leading tech companies such as 10Pearls, TechLogics, VentureDive and IBEX Global among others, where they work with professionals developing websites and writing code for local and foreign companies.

Mohsin explained that she and the trainer keep in touch with the interning students and provide advice and encouragement as needed. The ultimate aim is to ensure that they become self-reliant with time and move on to learning other more complicated coding languages on their own.

A new pipeline

The rate of women’s participation in Pakistan’s economy is not heartening. Just 25 per cent of the country’s female working age population is in the labour force, according to data from the World Bank. This is the lowest rate of female labour force in the region.

Moreover, the latest World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2018 ranked Pakistan 148 out of 149 countries for gender parity — the second worst country in the world, just a notch above Yemen, which is actually a warzone at the moment. Effective policy by the government to address this disparity is the need of the hour. On a social level, programmes such as Tech Karo can serve as a gateway to bring women out into fields that are traditionally male-dominated, such as information technology.

That is exactly what Saddafe Abid, the founder of CIRCLE, was aiming for. “I was keen that rather than doing typical programmes that are keeping women in low-paid jobs and roles, how can we leverage technology and plug women into the industrial revolution,” she said.

According to a survey report by Pakistan Software Houses Association, women constitute only 14 per cent of the local tech sector. During her research, Abid realised that the next growth was in the technology sector and women can form an integral part of it if they were provided a platform to put a foot in the door. Hence, Tech Karo was born. “Technology is a great enabler. It is an equaliser and that’s the philosophy behind Tech Karo: to bring the technology to women and enable them to grow and contribute as active economic agents.”

Abid is happy that the programme has been able to build a new pipeline for the tech sector which can bring in women and men from underserved communities, boosting the diversity at workplaces. She hopes to grow it further each year and expand into other cities as well.

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