Monday, August 21, 2017

Geek girls to tackle tech gender gap

Ooredoo's entrepreneurial branch Ideabox has kicked off an initiative in Myanmar to create space for women in the country’s tech scene.

Team Ace won Code For Change Myanmar’s Business Solutions Hackathon in September. Photo: SuppliedTeam Ace won Code For Change Myanmar’s Business Solutions Hackathon in September. Photo: Supplied

The Geek Girls program, built off a legacy of other women-centric community organisations such as the San Francisco-based nonprofit Girls in Tech, met for the first time at the end of September at Gusto Cafe.

The group aims to steer women toward careers in technology and address challenges they face in the pursuit.

Ma Sandi Sein Thein, a Geek Girls organiser, said it will help foster connections between women and entrepreneurs that could provide members with job opportunities in the field.

Working with Ideabox, Ma Sandi Sein Thein recognised the need for Geek Girls when she saw the scarcity of women entrepreneurs and leaders in tech and, specifically, realised how few female coders had signed up for a September hackathon in Yangon. A Facebook page for Geek Girls of Myanmar was established in the first week of that month and racked up 50 members in seven days.

Ma Sandi Sein Thein said she called for a preliminary meeting and 30 people showed up. “They sent feedback to me like what they want in the future,” she said. “Now we have action plans for the whole year, like regular meet-ups, quarterly training workshop programs and [an] annual event like an app competition.”

In future, the program will provide technical and business trainings, bootcamps, workshops, meet-ups and more, according to a press release. And eventually, Ma Sandi Sein Thein sees Geek Girls becoming self-governing.

Its drive to foster community comes from a definite lack of space for women in the technology field, something male counterparts have less trouble with.

Ma Sandi Sein Thein said that though 60 percent of Myanmar Computer University’s students are female, their number dwindles in the field after school – something she thinks Geek Girls can change.

“They shouldn’t just end up doing nothing after graduation,” she said. “We built Geek Girls because we will let [women] meet female role models in technology. I think their motivation will be consistent if they have this kind of platform, these kinds of continuous activities.”

Julian Gorman, the director of digital services for Ooredoo Myanmar and a co-founder of Ideabox, also emphasised the importance of establishing an ecosystem around these women.

“There has to be training and a whole bunch of other things,” he said during a panel discussion at Ooredoo’s Connected Women’s Conference on October 17. He said the majority of the Ideabox community is self-taught. “You’ll find guys will sit around some geeky technology and share ideas and things like that.”

“But women, I think, don’t necessarily have that capability,” he continued. “That’s why we have the Geek Girls program – it’s like, get together at a cafe and start to talk geeky stuff and … participate in a community.”

Mr Gorman also pointed to the role resources can play in widening the gender gap between men and women in tech. In visiting two technical colleges in Yangon – one public, one private – he heard how similarly educated women and men faced different opportunities.

Most of the public school’s faculty and students were women, he said, while at the private school, a majority of the staff were women but all the students were men. Describing the public school, Mr Gorman said, “I think there was one small computer lab full of secondhand computers from some donor.”

A staff member at the private technical college informed him the industry would pick their students over ones from public schools, even though they all had been taught by similarly trained faculty.

“It struck me that male students had access … to the resources and then the industry would prefer them,” he said.

Besides the uneven spread of resources, Myanmar’s social norms may also prove discouraging to women who are considering a career in tech.

“The reason why we have less women in technology in my own perception may be because of our culture,” said one woman at the Connected Women’s Conference. While addressing a panel of women in the industry, she noted that she had a 9pm curfew – an obstacle to coding all night at a hackathon, for instance.

Ma Sandi Sein Thein says that these rules may play critical role in keeping women out of tech, because the industry can sometimes operate nocturnally. She said that while programmers often remain awake all night coding, strict parents might forbid women from staying late to work on projects with men.

“That’s a problem for Myanmar girls,” she said. “That is why they are not motivated, they get left behind.”

Meanwhile, another panellist allotted space for men in the cultural conversation.

“One of my takeaways is that you need to engage men because men are your fathers, and your brothers, your husbands, colleagues; and I’m assuming some of these social norms are driven by dad,” said Sui Ling Cheah, vice chair at Singapore’s Avista Advisory Group.

“In a small way … charm your father. Tell him this is for his own good and your own good.”

“I say that facetiously but I don’t mean any disrespect to the culture,” she said. “I do realise that there are a lot of significant challenges.”

Tweaking a situation can make a big difference for women entering a space where they will be greatly outnumbered. In the case of Code for Change Myanmar’s September Business Solutions Hackathon, accommodation was provided to give hackers of both genders comfortable places to crash during the 48-hour event.

“Everyone was … there to help us with everything we need so that we didn’t feel any burden about working with a bunch of guys even at nighttime,” said Yangon’s Honey Mya Win, whose group, Team Ace, won the competition.

“They arranged food, transportation and even separate rest rooms for girls to take a nap, and it was really  convenient for us.”

Incremental steps such as these could help close Myanmar’s gender gap in tech.

“What’s exciting here is that you are starting with a clean slate,” Sui Ling Cheah said. “You can do anything. And it sounds like you will do anything.”

And with Geek Girls leading the way, they won’t have to do it alone.