Rida Khan, a 21-year-old computer science student at Habib University, fixes her red spectacles and reviews her code for errors. She believes that the famous saying ‘To err is human, to forgive is divine’ isn’t really applicable because in the world of tech, there is little room for mistakes and as a woman, close to none. Since the launch of incubation centres in 2015, there has been an increase in women entrepreneurs as well as coders, software engineers and web developers among others, however, there is a lot which needs to be done with regards to the normalization of women taking space in the tech area.
As someone who is learning about software coding and applications, Khan feels that when men do programming it’s something normal but when girls do it, it’s considered out of the world.
Explaining her views, Khan said that syntax mistakes are really just human error anyone can make and a lot of times, men act like these small mistakes mean someone is a bad programmer.
“I once shared my grades with a guy friend, and I knew they were good,” she says. “He commented that I must be single because I am performing well in tech.”
“So they’d go haha this is so basic which is why I never asked a man to ever debug my code, I always asked my girl-friends who actually sit down and read my code and understand it with me while patiently explaining my mistakes to me. Plus I can’t possibly take the mansplaining, asking for a man’s help is like fueling their ego and reassuring them that in fact they are the better ones. I don’t think a lot of women feel this way but I’ve been an observer and I feel like they’ll realise it [in] good time,” she said.
“I once shared my grades with a guy friend, and I knew they were good,” she says. “He commented that I must be single because I am performing well in tech.” She says she found it silly of men to assume that a woman cannot handle a relationship alongside science without being a failure.
“I feel that men are able to get away despite knowing less because they know the art of mansplaining,” Khan says. “If we had to categorize it, it would be a) men who are good at programming b) men who are [bad] at it, and then at the bottom would come all the women who might be really good at it or just even average but not the worst.”
‘Girls can’t tech’: the stereotype that halts women
Khan is still a student but women who have degrees in computer science have been in the same boat.
Komal Narejo, who is currently enrolled in a PhD program in IT in China, says she completed her undergraduate studies in telecommunication from University of Sindh but had a strong grip on programming languages. Yet when she was called for her first job interview, she was conveniently told what she could and couldn’t do due to her gender.
“Once an online company called me for an interview and the person at the organisation dismissed my CV [saying] that programming was the domain of men and that I should take courses of graphic designing because women were better suited for designing and their minds could not deal with something as complicated as programming languages,” Narejo says.
When I joined it was made clear that the departments with more technical aspects like IP planning and management ‘don’t take women’Sindhu Abbasi
She says she decided to get back at him by sharing facts about women’s achievements in the IT domain but instead he shared a demeaning image of a girl having a baby feeder in her mouth with the words: ‘I am a good graphic designer.’ Narejo then went on to enhance her knowledge and skills by going for an advanced degree so there are more women who can be authority on different matters in the tech domain.
Sindhu Abbasi, who graduated from NED University in telecom engineering echoed similar views about women not given opportunities to create their mark in the field. Abbasi worked for a major ISP for a year. “Everyone in the office knew that women don’t occupy top tech departments,” she says. “It was said openly without any shame.”
She says even some women would say women shouldn’t be bosses.
“When I joined it was made clear that the departments with more technical aspects like IP planning and management ‘don’t take women’,” Abbasi says. “While late shifts were a reason, when some women, including me, said that we were ready to do them, we were not entertained.”
Company’s leadership, usually men, carry the same biases that women do not bring anything to the company in a tech oriented roleFatima Rizwan
Fatima Rizwan, a software engineer who runs the technology news platform TechJuice, says she had previously worked on different projects with regards to developing applications and web design.
Addressing the problem of women not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts, Rizwan feels that the massive stereotype that girls cannot code needs to be challenged as they are told at an impressionable age that they are incapable to think and design algorithms.
“The same stereotype is prevalent in software houses as well, employed women often find it difficult to share their opinions, and ideas because they don’t feel equally heard and appreciated. Company’s leadership, usually men, carry the same biases that women do not bring anything to the company in a tech oriented role. After marriage, women are not given opportunities to learn, lead and excel. It is assumed that she will drop out of the work sector and there is no point of investment on her skills. Also, these married women are not promoted as frequently as other male colleagues are, making the situation more stressful,” she says.
These experiences become important because they reflect the hurdles being created in the physical space for women who want to step into tech, especially the difficulties faced by women entrepreneurs in finding women coders, and software developers while also looking for mentors if they are unable to get their startups incubated.
‘Women can tech’- of incubators, mentors and support groups
Thanks to some experienced women who have spent a considerable amount of time in the field, the future doesn’t look that bleak. According to a recent report ‘Women Entrepreneurs in Pakistan’ launched by the incubation centre NEST I/O, around 27 percent of 31 women-led startups in Karachi and Lahore were operational for three to five years while 40 percent were running for up to three years. Ninety percent of these startups were generating revenue and 55 percent were “cash flow positive”.
Amna Asif, CEO and founder of ReliveNow, a technology assisted mental healthcare and online counseling service for those struggling with mental health issues, says her experience of getting incubated at NEST I/O greatly helped her.
“I am from business background so I didn’t have any access to the tech community,” Asif says. “There were a lot of things which were taught by the incubation centre. They helped me build a network and equipped me with various tools.”
Around 27 percent of 31 women-led startups in Karachi and Lahore were operational for three to five years while 40 percent were running for up to three years
Speaking about her gender getting in the way, Asif says she hasn’t faced a lot of discrimination because she was confident enough to not get intimidated due to support from family and peers but when it came to the conference room talks, she felt that men do try to put women down.
“Investors are mainly men and they tend to not take you seriously just because you are a woman,” she says. “No matter how valid my information is, their stance will not be as strong as it would be with a man.”
I was working at a software house, and there were just two women including me and the men around me kept saying I wouldn’t be able to pull it offAmna Asif
Asif says there are times when male investors would needlessly scrutinize issues that can be addressed and would just end the conversation instead of finding a way to move forward. She says given most women are younger, there is also infantilisation.
But she feels that such men must be ignored because there would be some who would be empathetic as well.
“Entrepreneurial journey can be a very lonely journey and more so if you’re a woman,” Asif says. “I was working at a software house, and there were just two women including me and the men around me kept saying I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I think we need to celebrate our milestones.”
Speaking about handing the tech side to women, Asif feels that it is not difficult to find women coders but the external factors such as commute and working hours make it easier to work with men because they are able to do late shifts and do not have problems in commuting, and those factors would need a shift in the mindset of society to enable more women.
NEST I/O has been inclusive with regards to their Startup Weekend Women Karachi as there were flexible timings for women who were also homemakers, and the space was children-friendly so that mothers would not hesitate in getting their ideas incubated.
How incubation spaces are helping women
Areej Al Medinah, a co-founder at the sign-language startup Connect Hear, says while she and her team hadn’t felt discrimination on the basis of gender during their startup’s incubation, people often discuss the technical aspect of their work with the male member on their team as they do not have any female member looking after the technical side.
Al Medinah, who is studying computer science at Habib University, feels that while women are learning about the field as universities do see a number of women getting enrolled in IT departments, the notion that women would not excel in tech often acts like a shackle.
“Women are supposed to be good coders but because of this idea that women aren’t as good as men it creates an imposter syndrome that I can’t be as good,” Al Medinah says. “But then there are women who are trying to fight this.”
She says there are many online communities which act as a support system for women.
Incubation helped us a lot in that regard especially the validation we received thereAsra Rizwan
“Women can ask queries about their work, and even share their journeys,” Al Medinah says. “This year a Google Scholarship was open for women in tech and when applications were open a lot of women I know stepped back thinking they would never get in. So you can imagine the response if it was a program for both men and women, they might have never applied altogether.”
However, Al Medinah is optimistic that the growing communities which teach women to code as well as learn entrepreneurship basics, irrespective of their backgrounds are definitely helping women, and the credit goes to the mentors doing a great job.
Taking on the idea of having social dialogue in universities, Asra Rizwan, a software engineer, started Open Mic at NED University under the programme of campus startup in 2015 and got incubated at NEST I/O in August 2018.
Rizwan also believes that the reason it is far more difficult for women to trust themselves is that the idea of women unable to code or perform emerges from university when they are not encouraged
“We were all over the place and were trying to gauge our opportunities because there are times when you have to let go of one to focus on another,” Rizwan says. “Incubation helped us a lot in that regard especially the validation we received there because when you are at an incubation space, you are surrounded by people who are struggling and it is inspiring to learn from people’s journeys.”
She says they realised they were underselling themselves despite generating money and helping students in receiving scholarships.
“Given that now we have been holding various kinds of dialogues in different areas, we are working on a digital content platform which would help us in generating data insights,” Rizwan says. “I would be looking after the data.”
As a software engineer, Rizwan also believes that the reason it is far more difficult for women to trust themselves is that the idea of women unable to code or perform emerges from university when they are not encouraged even if they secure a high GPA.
“I feel people underestimate the scope of IT for women because I was working from home and getting projects in my sophomore year,” she says. “They are discouraged from internships because the ultimate idea is to not let them flourish in the area because they are women and jobs related to teaching, beauty or attire suit them better.”
Rizwan says during her work as an IT officer at the department of Research, Innovation and Commercialisation, she would keep reminding the men about how she could get them resources but they would discuss plans in front of her and never take her input which could have solved problems.
Rizwan, who also had a few mothers in her startup incubation batch, says it was the first time for NEST as well to get mothers on board.
“There was one expecting a child alongside those who had their babies as little as three or four months. Jehan Ara, who leads [the] NEST, had said that she didn’t want NEST to be a space where mothers were not welcome, and said that all spaces should also take similar steps because while there is a need for more incubation centres, they should also be mothers’ friendly,” she says, adding that there were flexible hours and directives for the mothers so they could ensure their participation.
It is very difficult to survive and thrive without an incubation center and the support network that organically comes with itFatima Rizwan
Speaking about incubation centres, Fatima Rizwan feels that they can be immensely helpful for women looking to start their businesses, because her own journey starting TechJuice without an incubation space was difficult. She believes that the network of mentors, investors and legal experts which can be very helpful for a startup in the initial days.
“On top, some of the incubation programs are providing office space and a monthly stipend without taking any equity in return. By getting access to these facilities a startup can hire the initial set of employees, pay them well, capture clients and gain credibility through support of incubation network. It is very difficult to survive and thrive without an incubation center and the support network that organically comes with it. I started TechJuice without going through an incubation program. I had no support system, no mentors, no co-founder, and no team,” she said.
Rizwan also added that she would get drained physically and emotionally and that it was a struggle making progress, hiring team and initial set of customers who were willing to pay, or mentors who could vouch for TechJuice: “In an incubation space, you are surrounded by a bunch of optimists, believers who think that they can solve a big problem and make some money during the process. That kind of network is hard to come across without incubation like space where you can interact with founders on [a] daily basis. Doing startup is very difficult and it can get lonely at times. Many founders go through anxiety and depression, a network of people who understand a startup struggle can be very helpful.”
Mentoring and creating support groups
Known to all as someone who has not only enabled women to follow their dreams in tech, but also for fostering online communities to act as support groups, Faiza Yusuf started her journey in the tech sector without incubation support. She believes incubators are very supportive but sometimes their approach may not be in line with your idea.
“My entrepreneurial journey consists of starting two service-based startups and two community initiatives but I never became part of any incubation program,” Yusuf says. “The reasons being, mostly tech incubators lean towards having product based startups on board and in [the] case of community initiative, the idea won’t make any money, rather have a focus on creating impact.”
With our community and boot camp, we make sure that women receive the right kind of support and excellent mentors who can help them make better decisionsFaiza Yusuf
She says incubation provides a lot of benefits and it is harder to execute and sustain an idea without added support.
“But if you have a plan in mind, are lean and agile enough to power through the first few years, you will be on your way towards success,” she says.
Yusuf feels that the hurdles are the same in any field which has more men than women.
“I had my fair share of experiencing discriminatory behavior and have been a victim of wage gap but despite all the odds, I kind of made it work for me,” she says. “My community initiative Women In Tech PK and our program Code Girls, both are based on the idea of inclusion in tech and are helping women get access to opportunities in the tech industry.”
She says their community provides a support system and network to their members, and their boot camp provides tech and business education as well as employment opportunities to women.
Yusuf, who has been involved in mentoring young women irrespective of their qualifications, believes that mentoring can make all the difference in the world.
“With our community and boot camp, we make sure that women receive the right kind of support and excellent mentors who can help them make better decisions. I have mentored a few dozen women, both formally and informally and it has been a learning experience for both parties,” she says.
Is survival possible without incubation?
Quratul Ain who has been running an IT business with a partner in the US says her work is service based and she runs the work from Pakistan. Given that she has been doing this for the past many years, she decided to apply at NUST Technology Incubation Centre to get incubated.
“I felt that getting incubated would be beneficial but I felt that the process was unclear and it was taking too long. I have eight years experience prior to me starting my own venture so it is not like I was going to start from zero, any way,” she says.
Samreen Essa, who runs the home-based product line Mysticare, says she did not know about incubation when she started her work in 2016.
The social media market is hard, you have to present every time making sure that your brand is visible to the audience and keep a check on what others are doing to improveSamreen Essa
Essa says she faced a lot of hurdles with regards to the response as her natural products for hair and skin were mocked but she continued to struggle and after two years she feels she has been successful enough. Speaking about the digital support, she says she learnt a lot from social media after following other businesses.
“The social media market is hard, you have to present every time making sure that your brand is visible to the audience and keep a check on what others are doing to improve,” Essa says. “This is how I learnt.”
Sadaf Imran, who is also running a business called Nauraj Accessories, says that she used social media as her tool to conduct her business for the past five years now.
“I have been using the internet for a long time but never knew the groups that were there to support,” Imran says. “A friend of mine referred me to some groups but I explored other aspects.”
Media, pop culture should show women in tech as protagonists; present women in tech as role models; change perceptions of young girls around tech and programmingFatima Rizwan
She says getting incubated wasn’t a viable option because she is a housewife.
“If I talk about being a desi woman living with in-laws then I would definitely add that at times it is not possible for us to go for incubation because people don’t accept reasons like how it is difficult to stay away from your house especially when you have a joint family system,” she says. “I had only one training but that was about online marketing. I received it after one and a half years of my startup, which actually helped me to get to know the marketing tools.”
What more can be done?
As someone who is promoting women in tech, Fatima Rizwan thinks that without grassroots level changes, it is difficult to think of bridging the gender gap.
“A national level campaign on the role and importance of women in tech, making tech more inclusive by giving women equal access to opportunities of career progress, giving them maternity leaves, flexible working hours. Media, pop culture should show women in tech as protagonists; present women in tech as role models; change perceptions of young girls around tech and programming,” she says, sharing ways which can help in making the tech area accessible for women.
Sophia Hasnain, the CEO of Linked Things, however, feels that the awareness part has more or less been achieved and it is time to reflect on successes and failures: “There are definitely some learning hidden in the failures to build robust technology, businesses and success stories. For example, women entrepreneurs have shied away from owning the tech part and focused on business development or may have gotten into investment deals that were detrimental to the growth of their business or women couldn’t scale their businesses outside of incubator environment. So it is definitely time to reflect back specially that we have data for the last couple of years.”
A Women Deliver Conference Media Fellow, United Nations Reham Al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellow and a reporting journalist since the past five years, Zoya Anwer has worked for two major English newspapers in Pakistan and has covered a range of topics related to gender equality, ethnic and class dynamics as well as social relationships between individuals and cities. She also writes fiction and was published in an Indian magazine, The Equator Line.