Women Who Talk Tech

How Pakistani Women Are Fighting Discrimination In The Local Tech Industry

  • 02 Sep - 08 Sep, 2017
  • Rabia Mushtaq
  • Feature


Twelve-year-old Sarah wants to work for Facebook. Her eyes gleam with enthusiasm as she shares her aspiration to become a part of one of the world’s most successful tech start-ups – Facebook. Not only does she want to work for the social media giant, she also wants to secure a top position in its management and rub shoulders with her role models Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Now that’s what one can call determination and passion towards one’s goals. It is not just Sarah who wants to make a career in the world of technology; there are several little girls like her who have similar aspirations of being in a profession which is, otherwise, considered opportune for guys.

For the past 25 years technology has had quite an impact on the lives of people around the world and the technological boom has led many to step into the field with an aim to bring forward their innovative ideas in the world of science and technology. Both women and men have actively participated and have introduced newer inventions and ideas in the field but it is mostly men who are seen at the onset of successful businesses. Why so?

A survey titled, Information Systems Audit and Control Association’s 2017 Women in Technology, states:

“In 2017, women in tech are still facing significant barriers in the workplace — from a shortage of women role models, to gender-based pay gap, to persistent gender bias that nearly 90% of them say they have experienced.”

One of the world’s leading mobile manufacturer, Apple, was led by Steve Jobs, whose demise resulted in the position to be transferred to yet another man, Tim Cook. Where are the women? According to the Huffington Post, only one of Apple’s 11 senior executives is female. Why?

While looking for successful women in Pakistan’s technological industry, one will be left surprised after discovering the number of women who are not just working in the tech business but are also equally excelling at their jobs. MAG spoke to a few female professionals in Pakistan’s tech industry who have shattered the glass ceiling and are paving way for those to come.

We asked if Pakistan’s tech industry is welcoming towards women and Sadaffe Abid, founder of Circle Pakistan – a company whose mission is to advance women’s economic participation and empowerment through innovative entrepreneurship and leadership labs, advocacy campaigns and research – says, “Women represent only 14 per cent of the IT workforce in Pakistan and 13 per cent of IT managers (P@SHA, 2012). We need to increase representation of women in the tech industry. Diversity boosts the bottom line and leads to innovation,” she responds, adding, “Men and women bring different experiences, insights and ideas to the table which makes a company strong. When women thrive, businesses thrive. While there is low representation of women in tech, it’s a huge opportunity. We need more women to choose tech as a career, for colleges to encourage women, and for young women to have mentors, and role models to inspire them.”

One couldn’t agree more with what Sadaffe had to share. Similarly, another tech professional Aqsa Tariq, who is Head of Editorial at IDG (Pakistan) – a global technology, media and conferences company, states, “Though it (tech industry) is currently dominated by men, I think it has been pretty welcoming. They look at you strangely at first, but if you know what you're saying/doing, you're good!” she was all praises for Pakistan’s tech business.

In comparison to the Silicon Valley, how talented are women in the local tech arena, I ask. “Pakistani women are charting new frontiers. They are making us so proud. I believe women are our most under-utilised potential and we need to give opportunities to women for Pakistan’s social and economics progress,” Sadaffe believes as she also talks about the discrimination faced in the industry with respect to one’s gender. “One of the biggest obstacles event today for women is mobility. When I started my career, I took a rickshaw to work but within a month stopped as it was taking up 40 per cent of my salary,” she says and continues, “I moved to using the mini wagon, which is when I experienced how challenging it is for a woman in Pakistan to be outdoors facing harassment on the road. Just getting to work is a test for millions of Pakistani women and continues to be a hurdle today,” Sadaffe laments.

Though there are many female tech professionals in our country such as Jehan Ara Saeed, Sadaffe Abid, Sana Saleem, Nighat Daad, Sidra Qasim, Rabia Garib, Maria Umar and Sahr Said to name a few who are known for their expertise in the field, but what is it that still keeps many away from the limelight or if they have to face discrimination?

Ilsa Khan, a Data Engineer, at NexDegree Private Limited has experienced discrimination in the field. She shares how gender discrimination is slightly rampant in the industry. “People have this bias that Quality Assurance is easy and development is not, and throughout my university life a common thing was assumed: women go in Software Quality Assurance and men go in development and coding,” she quips, adding, “additionally, a lot of software houses do not hire women at all. Moreover, some women are just hired for Quality Assurance positions. It is sort of assumed that women are less technically advanced.”

However, not all hope is lost, for Maria Umar, a success story shares how she fought the odds and became a known name in the local tech scene with her venture Women's Digital League (WDL) – a non-profit organisation empowering Pakistani women by training and introducing them to computer based work. “I have proven myself plenty of times. In 2008 I identified a problem, that women do not have equal opportunities as men in the workforce,” she states. “WDL became the voice and face for digital livelihood as an alternative to encourage more women to participate in the workforce, but also suggests an alternative way to work unlike conventional means,” she talks about the work her organisation does in an ambitious tone.

As for Aqsa, she believes that stories of women excelling at tech need to be brought forward. “It's a good idea to have more female stories out there. There are females heading IT companies and IT department at large organisations, but perhaps those are the lesser known tales.” She assumed that some women might take a back seat because of male dominance, but she doesn’t feel that the industry as such is discriminatory. It depends on a person’s skill, capacity, and determination to pursue a career that matters at the end of the day.

Sadaffe Abid states that ending gender discrimation and bringing opportunities for women should be a goal championed by men and women. “We need men as allies. Men who want to see and work for a better future and provide equal opportinuties for their female peers, daughters and grand daughters. We need more role models for young women and when they are growing up, encourage them to go for fields such as STEM so that they can become engineers, techies, pilots. Companies need to foster diversity to boost their financial performance, set benchmarks and measure progress. One of the key success factors in all of this is the commitment of the top management.”

After the recent anti-diversity memo controversy at Google, the position of women in tech industry has been a hot topic. The manifesto written by James Damore was dismissed by Google but the issues faced by women on a regular basis in tech are still lingering. However, Pakistan still boasts some names that are leading many tech start-ups as well as privately held tech businesses; therefore, instead of losing hope, Pakistani women must be proud of their calibre as tech professionals and keep conquering with their tech powers. 

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