A Women’s World: Virtual Offices and Gender Gyms
How social innovation is pioneering a new reality for women across the Middle East and North Africa.
The Organization ChunriChoupaal does not accept the male bias of the tech industry. Neither in Europe nor in Pakistan.
Are computers male or female? In the past, computers were associated with boys with thick glasses who came together to play strange games or talk about weird computer software. Nowadays though, it is cool to be a nerd. Successful, self-made men have turned their IT skills into hard, cold cash. The digital industry is booming – with Google, Facebook, Twitter as its rising stars. We all know about the Mark Zuckerbergs and Larry Pages who are the faces behind the IT companies, but there are still too few women in the tech world. While this can in part be attributed to fewer women with the necessary skills, all too often it is due to a biased industry that sets the barriers a lot higher for women then for men. The Dutch ChunriChoupaal organization has begun breaking down these barriers and opening up the IT industry. They originally began by focusing on women in rural Pakistan with their “The Code to Change” program, but soon discovered that there was clear need in Europe as well. Iffat Gil, founder and CEO of ChunriChoupaal, took the time to speak to us about the challenges of the tech world, the similarities and differences between the programs in Pakistan and the Netherlands, and how to deal with sexism in the workplace.
DDD: The tech industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. But according to your numbers, only 20% of all employees are female. Why is that?
…it is hard to integrate women into this male-dominated tech workforce.
There are several reasons, but one is clearly that working in the IT industry has always been considered a man’s job. Especially when computers really took off in the 80s and 90s, people saw the opportunities of the industry, and making money is still seen as something for males and not for females in our societies. Now it is hard to integrate women into this male-dominated tech workforce. Even if they have the skills, it is harder for women to find a job. People have recognized this problem, and are looking for solutions. At the moment, though, most approaches are more cosmetic solutions than a real change in the culture that would make it more welcoming for women. To give you an example: We ran a program called "The Code to Change", where we worked with women at a crossroads in their careers. They either did not know what to do next, or had been out of the workforce for a while. There was a clear skills gap, because they didn’t have the right digital skills to access the currently available jobs. We trained them to the point where they met the skills profile, and should then have been recruited by the tech industry. But the way the recruiting process works, they were still not recognized. They had talent and could deliver, but were not recognized by the industry.
You have a lot of experience in this area, so what do you consider to be the most challenging obstacle facing women who want to join the tech industry?
We refuse to recognize talent when we see it, and keep asking women to prove themselves and demonstrate their talent again and again…
The most challenging part is rooted in the explicit and implicit biases. We refuse to recognize talent when we see it, and keep asking women to prove themselves and demonstrate their talent again and again - especially in the tech industry. A man applying for the same job faces less skepticism. In a lot of cases we saw, many of the men did not have the necessary experience to do the job, but the stereotype is that they will perform better. This stereotype is really hurting women. We had the same problem in the apprenticeship phase of our program. After we trained participants, we placed them in different partner companies as apprentices to gather on-the-job experience, which is very important if you are new to a field. But a lot of companies were still quite reluctant to hire them. They were used to hiring computer science graduates, and preferred to take people who had been formally educated, people with a degree, but not necessarily the experience. The companies were more willing to choose a recent graduate and spend extra money training him for one or two years, than they were to back talented professionals who wanted to switch careers to the tech industry and already had the right skills and experience. It was really an uphill battle for us.
We took a multi-stakeholder approach. What is innovative about our program is that we work with industry professionals. Tech leaders train our participants and mentor them for a period of five months. They know exactly how to guide them in the right direction so they achieve the desired level of professional experience in a rather short amount of time. We also partner with companies from day one, so they can get know the participants and are willing to recruit them. We try to provide our participants with a network as well that can help them manage their entry into the IT industry.
The rise of the tech industry is obviously creating new jobs and opportunities, but might also be leading to more inequality for those without the necessary skills. In addition to the gender divide, there is also an urban-rural gap and a North-South gap. Are you aiming to bridge these gaps as well?
ChunriChoupaal started with a project in Pakistan; that was our initial focus. But then we began hearing from European women about similar challenges in finding a job or a skills gap in Europe as well. So we decided to start working here too. The problem in the Global South is slightly different, though. Staying with the example of Pakistan, there is a problem with safe spaces for women. And there are cultural barriers, limits to what is acceptable. We had to address these barriers at the beginning of our project.
In countries like Pakistan, the fact that digital technology allows you to work from anywhere is a huge advantage.
We started by creating safe spaces, locations it was culturally acceptable for women to go to and learn. That is what ChunriChoupaal means – it is essentially a sitting place for women, a place for them to come, learn, and connect. Secondly, these women might not be allowed to work with male teachers, so it was important to find female trainers and instructors. This makes the women feel more comfortable, and their families find it more acceptable to send them to a female-led training workshop. In countries like Pakistan, the fact that digital technology allows you to work from anywhere is a huge advantage. You do not even have to leave your house. That idea is often welcomed by families, because some are not comfortable with the idea of their women leaving the house to go to work. There are so many opportunities for working online, but people do not know about them, because they do not know where to start or how to access information about job opportunities. So we work with them to develop digital skills, but we also introduce them to different learning and working avenues online, so that they can use their skills to be economically empowered.
In Europe, we can start by teaching coding skills, but in Pakistan we start with basic digital literacy. We actually teach our participants how to use a computer, office skills, communication skills, and how to present themselves. Then we slowly teach them how to code and how to build apps that can be used to improve their communities, for example. We also train them how to monetize their skills, how to offer their skills on a platform or website.
When we started our work in Pakistan, we specifically focused on rural and suburban women, because they had even fewer opportunities than women in cities. We felt there was more need. The way our approach works is that we work on removing any additional barriers that might get in their way. So we try to involve multiple stakeholders, like the local tech industry, and the local government. We aim to coordinate our resources to make sure we are reaching the people who need it most. The application process is open, but we market our program through the existing networks that work with vulnerable and underrepresented groups. This is how we make sure they are included in our program. I’ll give you an example: In this year’s program, we included six refugees and we are working with the local government and organizations to make sure that we can get rid of extra barriers they experience to joining our program. A local organization voluntarily raised funds for us to make sure that these six women were included in the program, for example.
While we’re on the topic of development, what do you see as your role in achieving the SDGs?
Digital technology is taking over everything - every aspect of our lives.
In terms of the global development agenda: I have worked on empowering women through skill-building since I was 21, when I first enrolled in university. Over the course of my work, I have come to realize this is not the direction the world is going in and the Internet gains popularity and digital opportunities increase. Digital technology is taking over everything - every aspect of our lives. That is why I shifted my approach to digital skills and empowering women through digital skills. When you cannot read and write, you are called illiterate. I felt that in the future, not having the right digital skills will make you the modern illiterate. We need digital skills more than ever before today. If we really want to achieve gender equality, the way forward is to empower women economically, and the economics are all now in the digital sector. Digital skills are the key to achieving gender equality.
The only reason ChunriChoupaal exists because of the passion of women working in tech - and of some men who are also open to our ideas. It is important to highlight the success stories out there - we focus on that in our "Code to Talk" format. We choose women who work in tech and ask them to share their stories. These might be women who already have a high position in their company, or emerging leaders, as we call them, who have great potential. These events provide visibility, and once our participants have this visibility through our events, they all of a sudden become more credible to their companies, their teams, or their managers and bosses. And they start to get better opportunities and projects in their positions. That is something that we are really proud of. It is all about highlighting some of the role models in the industry who either share the story of their career story or of a project they are working on. But they also share the challenges they have faced as a women in their company, and how they overcame these challenges.
I have one success story I can share. One of our mentees found a job within just one month of graduating from our boot camp. She had been out of the work force for quite some time raising her children. She could not even successfully land an interview because there was this huge gap in her CV. As soon as she could put “Code to Change” on her CV, she was seen as person who takes initiative, who builds her skills. Potential employers see this as promising. And we have noticed a difference between start-ups and big companies. Start-ups play a more positive role because they are more flexible, and do not have a huge, bureaucratic recruitment process.