Creating space for women in the tech world
May 31, 2019-
The dust in Kathmandu must have gotten into Pradita Pradhan’s lungs. Her throat was dry when she ordered a cup of mint tea in Falcha. The café is located at Freak Street, a once well-known place among hippies for its abundance of hashish and marijuana. As we eased into a conversation, she mentioned how her voice had worsened in the last few months. Living in picturesque but dusty Kathmandu has its costs, I thought.
Pradita, an engineer by training, is one of the co-founders of Miss Technology Nepal (Miss Tech), an initiative that promotes women’s participation in technology. She describes Miss Tech as a “running project” under Robotics Association of Nepal (RAN). Through RAN and Miss Tech, her team have been providing workshops and trainings for women in technology for the last three years.
“It started with an observation that there aren’t that many women participating at Yantra (an annual robotics competition organised by RAN). We (the team at RAN) started a series of training sessions targeting female high school and college students in March 2016,” she remembers. Providing training was not enough to showcase the skills the participants had learned. Ten months later in December, her team organised the first Miss Tech competition to tackle water-related issues. The event turned out to be an inspiring start for Pradita and her team of more than 30 all-female members.
In 2017, they received grants from the US Embassy in Nepal, the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a regional environmental non-profit, and the Nepal Telecommunications Authority (NTA) to organise technology training sessions in seven cities across Nepal. In each of the cities, they partnered with American participants to host a five-day long technical training course. Participants were taught a range of technical skills ranging from coding to assembling drones. More than 300 female participants joined these workshops across Nepal.
These workshops have a twofold function. First, they provide participants with an opportunity to enhance their technical capabilities. Second, they cultivate a local network of women in technology. Pradita and her team built on these workshops and networks to invite participants for Miss Tech 2017. While the focus of previous workshops was on technical skills, participants in the second Miss Tech competition were provided with soft skills training, including workshops on human centred design and presentation.
While designing a technically sound product is the stated challenge, Pradita and participants believe something deeper is at play here.
“What keeps me going is the sense of accomplishment in the participants,” says Pradita. “The girls who were shy to speak before are now quite confident.”
The participants, too, feel that one of the biggest takeaways for them is the confidence they have gained. “It was my first competition, where I presented in front of an audience,” Bhawana Subedi, winner of the Miss Tech 2016, says as she recalls her participation in the event. Her team, Elysian, designed a portable pH sensor to measure water quality. This helped them win the inaugural Miss Tech Competition in 2017. Asmita Gaire, another Elysian team member, reiterates how participation in the competition helped boost her confidence. “It felt like going from zero to different levels.”
Miss Tech has not only helped instill confidence in hundreds of women but has also provided them with a platform to showcase and sharpen their entrepreneurial skills. “I used to host events before. But in Miss Tech the challenge was different. We had to present our ideas in under 10 minutes. That was the most challenging part. My team did not perform well because of my overconfidence,” says Bishika Subedi, the third Elysian team member.
Women’s participation in technology has been low historically--even in countries with advanced economies that lead the world in innovation and economic growth. Four out of five engineers in the US are still male. In the Middle East, the situation does not look all that different. In Israel, often known for the innovations it generates, women engineers still account for around 14 percent of the all the engineers.
Nepal is not an exception to this global phenomenon. Until five years ago, only 14 percent of the tertiary engineering graduates were female, according to UNESCO. While there is a lack of updated data, anecdotal evidence illustrates how grim the situation has been until recently. Bhawana mentioned that in her “batch” (class), there were only three or four female students among a few hundreds in the “physical section.”
Students in the last two years of high school in Nepal pick their ‘streams’, primarily in the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. Those studying the natural sciences can further pick from two different concentrations: life sciences or physical sciences. It is mostly the students enrolled in the physical sciences who eventually study engineering, computer science and other non-life science related subjects as undergraduates.
Gauzing the enrollment of female students in the “physical sections” of high schools is an approximate proxy to figure out the women enrollment into higher sciences. The situation is not too promising. At the Advanced College of Engineering, where both the Elysian team members and Pradita studied, the number of female undergraduate students is still low. “There were eight or nine of us in a section of 44 students,” recounts Bishika.
The challenge to increase female participation in engineering lies not just in creating a conducive environment for higher enrollment numbers at schools and universities. This is just the tip of the iceberg. A lot still needs to be done to ensure female engineering and technology graduates continue into the profession. Many women engineering graduates choose not to pursue an engineering career once they graduate.
“The problem starts at home. Girls are given dolls, whereas boys are encouraged to play computer games,” Bhawana’s dissatisfaction spills over how gender stereotypes prevent women from pursuing engineering early on. Once they are in schools and universities, they have few classmates and the number shrinks even more when they get to largely male-dominated office spaces.
Yet this has not prevented women such as Pradita, Bhawana, Bishika, and Asmita. Pradita is completing her MBA in IT and works for a non-profit that provides local technological solutions. Bhawana has started her own virtual reality based startup. Asmita wants to pursue Masters degree. Bishika has started working “in the real world” as a developer. These women are here to stay in tech despite all the societal forces telling them to do otherwise.
When you visit Kathmandu, don’t just complain about the dust or hike to the hills, old palaces and stupas. If you can, search beyond the poverty and chaos you find on the surface. Maybe you don’t have to travel all the way to Nepal. There are, surely, Praditas in your communities too. Ask what you could do, even in the smallest possible way. Sometimes words do matter.
Karki sips teas, rambles in the streets, and meditates trying not to get bored. He could be reached at email@example.com
Published: 01-06-2019 08:00