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How global technology sectors can move toward gender equality

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ARTICLE SUMMARY

In this piece, Habiba Aslonova, director of Alif Academy, takes a look at why diversity in it is a global issues and how companies can support women entering the sector.

Habiba is the Director of Alif Academy – a Tajikistani-based training centre offering free tech programming courses for Tajikistani residents and Afghani refugees seeking to pursue a career in IT and Tech. Once students have successfully completed and passed the courses, Alif Academy will also assist with sourcing job opportunities and placements. The academy was established by Alif Bank (a leading Islamic Fintech based In Tajikistan) in 2017.

HABIBA ASLONOVA, DIRECTOR OF ALIF ACADEMY

Having taken charge of Alif Academy in 2022, Habiba is launching a series of initiatives to ensure everyone in Central Asia has the opportunity to pursue a career in tech. As part of this, she has launched two programmes – the first targets women, offering them tailored courses in IT to challenge stereotypes about women working in STEM. The second programme offers free tech education for Afghan refugees who have sought asylum in Tajikistan. The courses cover coding, quality assurance and project management through face-to-face and online teaching formats. 

THE GENDER LANDSCAPE IN TECHNOLOGY SECTORS

There is a significant lack of equal gender representation in tech sectors worldwide. In the UK, for example, women make up 49% of the nation’s workforce, yet when it comes to the technology sector,  81% are male. Only 38% of women who gained a degree in computer science are working in the field compared to 53% of men. Of the three million tech workers situated in the UK, only 26% are women. Within this, females only form 5% of senior positions.

Further research from Girls Who Code and Accenture found that half of young women who follow a career in tech leave their positions by age 35, citing “non-inclusive company culture”. It’s worth noting that the UK and US may have one of the more favourable splits, and other countries are likely to have even more disparate weightings. Central Asia is a likely example. A testament to this is a lack of research and statistics around gender equality within our region, however, one study indicates that in Uzbekistan women only form 18% of tech roles, almost twice lower than in the UK.

According to PWC research from 2021, which studied over 2,000 A-level students, only 27% of women would consider a career in technology, as opposed to 61% of males. Within this, only 3% of women chose technology as their field of choice. Females (16%) are more than twice as unlikely to have a tech career suggested to them compared to males (33%). So, before women have the chance to pursue further education or a career, the technology sector is already perceived as unapproachable.

As the Director of Alif Academy, an initiative dedicated to providing female and male Tajikistani residents and underprivileged groups including Afghan refugees with free STEM courses, we have to question why such inequality exists.

IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM(S)

There are a few factors at play that stifle both entry and progression for women in tech roles. Stereotypes of what women should be, how we should act, and what we should prioritise as our career or purpose are skewed at an early age, particularly in developing countries where stereotypes are more constructed and ingrained. Regardless of where we are in the world, the way we educate women is limited exploration and ambition.

In my view, it partly reflects a generalised and unfounded stereotype that tech jobs do not interest women or that we do not possess the necessary skills to be successful in this field. Consequently, fewer female voices are heard, and fewer female-focused initiatives are available. With males disproportionately dominating the sector and holding the majority of leadership positions, changing the narrative is an uphill struggle.

IN EDUCATION

Education is a crucial fulcrum between ambition and stereotypes; we need to examine the choices men and women make before they start their careers. In developed countries, we’d expect to see a positive representation of women in STEM courses. However, UK university enrolment figures in 2021 show the majority of higher-education enrollees are female, with a 56.6% share. The gender split for IT courses in 2021 details that, of 129,610 UCAS applications, only 22,710 – or 17.5% – were female. Any attempt to promote more women pursuing careers in tech has to take this into account. Women need to be encouraged in early education to consider pursuing training in the tech field or at least be encouraged to explore their interest in the industry.

Take Alif Academy as an example, of 2000 graduates only 447 of them are girls. We are one of the only programming schools in Tajikistan that provides IT courses only for girls, where teachers, assistants and mentors are girls. With a female-led infrastructure, we hope to challenge the gender bias’ halting IT career ambitions for women of all ages.

Of course, the formulation of career choices occurs long before university course selections, which is why Alif Academy gives a specific focus on children in elementary school. By providing clearer guidance and examples to young children, we take a proactive approach to tackle gender equality in the future more widely. Age is a crucial factor when changing gender landscapes, particularly in developing countries where fewer informational resources encourage the ingraining of traditional but misinformed stereotypes as to what roles women are suited to in society and the workplace.

To formulate a system that accepts more women into technological industries, increased awareness is needed to challenge stereotypes of who a tech worker is. There are several ways to do this, with efforts dependent on the culture, country, and prevalence of females already in tech positions.

PROMOTE THE FEMALE JOURNEY

Speaking events, podcasts, written thought-leadership and broadcast or TV appearances are a great start when amplifying female voices. Many women who have risen to the top of large multinational corporations have fantastic insights about their journey and many are willing to speak up about gender-specific adversities. This is an imperative step to producing a more equal technology sector. If men continue to dominate the share of voice in our sector, there is little opportunity for women to relate and aspire, damaging ambition before careers have even begun.

INSPIRE EARLIER

Education needs to be as inclusive as possible. At Alif Academy, we ensure that our female students have equal support and resources when compared to their male counterparts. Stereotypes are often generational, so we’ve seen that engaging with the parents or guardians of our female students and explaining the opportunities afforded within the IT sector has encouraged course completion, as well as supporting career drive and ambition. Importantly, through our experiences at Alif Academy, it is clear that it is never too late for women to pursue a career in tech. The biggest factor for women is taking that initial first step, or being encouraged to do so.

AMPLIFIED VOICES AND ACCESSIBLE INITIATIVES

We need to champion the women currently working in the sector and provide them with an equal platform and share of voice so they can freely and openly discuss their experiences, expertise, and careers so far. Championing female experiences in the tech sector and promoting international case studies can spread awareness of an innovating and more accessible sector.

Finally, the tech sector needs to be accessible to all women. Whether it be increased marketing, female-led initiatives, scholarships, funds, or female-dedicated internship opportunities, the sector will not change unless a widespread and active invitation for women to learn more about the industry is achieved. Companies currently with or without relative equal gender splits must do more to implement, spread awareness of, and encourage enrolment in these opportunities. The best way to reach women is to target these opportunities to women of all ages, regardless of their career or education stages. Women with an interest in technological fields must be provided with appropriate resources whenever they desire them.

Alif Academy, among other worldwide initiatives, has highlighted how impactful these education opportunities, particularly when easily accessible, can be. We’ve started to make headway in Tajikistan, and I look forward to seeing our mission replicated in other regions and industries.

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