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9 March, 2018 00:00 00 AM

Women in STEM

Maria Mohsin
Women in STEM

Women’s contribution in every sphere is a must to build a developed nation, particularly in the science and technology sector. Women have started making their mark on the tech world in a big way. But it is going to take continuous effort for women to keep moving forward in an ever-evolving digital world, which remains dominated by men.  

Women are hugely underrepresented in the global technology workforce, not only in developing nations like Bangladesh, but also in developed countries like the United States of America and Great Britain. According to a recent statement by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “women occupy less than 30 percent of research and development jobs” in science and tech worldwide, and few women can be seen in top positions.  

“We need to encourage and support girls and women to achieve their full potential as scientific researchers and innovators. Women and girls need this, and the world needs this, if we are to achieve our ambitions for sustainable development on a healthy planet,” stated Guterres in a message on International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11.

UNESCO data also show that around 30 percent of all female students in higher education opt for STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

In Bangladesh, girls are doing equally well in science at school, but when it comes to pursuing degrees or careers, they often do not choose STEM fields that can offer solid jobs or make them self-reliant. For International Women’s Day on March 8, The Weekend Independent talked to some professionals who have made inroads into this sector to find out more about the challenges faced by women in STEM in this country.

Sanjida Khandaker, who graduated in business administration from Khulna University, is the founder of The 2Hour Job Search, an online platform connecting women to employers. She said, “I have seen many girls having to leave their studies, career, dreams because of family circumstances which makes them dependent on others, and they never get to use the talent and knowledge they have. We have the opportunity to make their lives a little more self-dependent. The idea came of 2Hour Job so that a woman can do something creative, alongside spending her time doing housework and raising children. Female students can also get connected through this platform. This single idea and a little knowledge on technology can bring about a huge change in our society, if it is used properly.”

Sonia Bashir Kabir, managing director for Microsoft Bangladesh Ltd, told The Weekend Independent: “The internet has brought about a paradigm shift in the lives of women in Bangladesh. We not only have access to information, but also have the option of working from any place, anytime, anywhere. This combination of knowledge plus power morphs our empowerment and takes us to places where no man has seen women before. It’s a blessing for us that our country is working for more and easy internet access, so no women must miss this opportunity.”  

“Technology plays a critical role in realising the government’s vision to bridge the opportunity divide around the country. Technological revolution that is going on silently throughout the country can be used to the advantage of women,” Kabir added.

Samira Zuberi Himika, founder and managing director of Team Engine, a for-profit social good company, said: “I come from a family where working for the development of this country is very much encouraged from childhood. Every girl in our country is not that much blessed. There are people who think women are incapable of leading and managing work as an entrepreneur, but I did it and I believe I am quite good at it. Moreover, I have seen many other women doing the same, with no less efficiency and smartness than men. Of course, I had to go through a struggle. Yes, there were mistakes and you know, everyone makes mistakes, but that’s not what is important. Above all, I have learned a lot and you can’t avoid mistakes in life and at work. I could not pay people for three months for different reasons. And those three months were really hard. However, I took that as a challenge, and it was a wonderful experience in a sense that it helped me to see things differently. For Bangladeshi girls, patience is the virtue. If you can be patient, you can achieve anything.” Working since 2010, Team Engine has been leading initiatives verticals using power of information, communication, innovation, activism and entrepreneurship, according to its website.

Tanzima Hashem, a computer science researcher and associate professor at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), received an OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award, an international award for women scientists, in 2017 for her work in computational approaches to protect privacy of people using location-based services. “Getting the award gave me the confidence to fulfil my dream of inventing user-friendly technology to solve the specific challenges we face in the developing world. I hope the award can be an inspiration to other women undertaking scientific research in developing countries, as we women really need role models to look up to in the field of science and technology.”

Samina M Saifuddin, assistant professor of management at Morgan State University in Baltimore, USA, did her doctorate research on women’s role in STEM in Bangladesh, where she found some key factors that tend to hold women back, including lack of mentors, lack of female role models, gender bias, unequal growth opportunities, compared to men, unequal pay for the same skills, lack of comfortable work environment and unwillingness to take STEM as a career due to social structure.  

“The tide does seem to be turning, thanks to a lot of persistence and hard work and effort, and women have a lot to celebrate when it comes to our progress to date,” Saifuddin said at a recent roundtable discussion on increasing participation of girls and women in STEM, held at Software Technology Park in Kawran Bazar, Dhaka.

“We took view of some Bangladeshi women who made their mark on STEM sectors. Their suggestions included keeping the push on to support women in tech is important, not only for closing the gender gap; it is one of the best ways to infuse the workplace of the future with different perspectives and some well-rounded creativity. Over the next decade, tech skills will play an increasingly crucial role in the workforce. If women, who make up half of the population, do not participate actively in it, then our country will obviously lack behind,” Saifuddin said in a keynote speech.  

“The time has never been better for women to make a difference in the world by becoming creators of the technology that empowers and redefines our future. There are many great initiatives happening now and we hope more women recognise their sense of passion, creativity and originality in the examples set by the outstanding female leaders of our country,” she added.

Hosne Ara Begum, managing director of Bangladesh Hi-Tech Park Authority, told this correspondent: “Many girls in Bangladesh are passing HSC (higher secondary certificate) from science group and a large number of them are studying engineering. But when it comes to choosing a career, they prefer being doctors, or they go for teaching. There are very few women working actively in the field of STEM. We have to make our girls believe in the opportunities they have in this area, and for that we need to show them good examples. But we are yet to create a proper data base about women working in the STEM sector to show them better examples.”

 “I have seen lots of young women who even could not finish school who have now become entrepreneurs by taking training on technology or doing diploma courses. So, I want to ensure at least 30 percent of female participants in every course and training programme we offer. We are in the process of opening hi-tech parks in every division of the county to ensure proper training from all sides. I have seen many girls who cannot choose STEM as a career because her family won’t allow her to stay alone in the city, so we must decentralise opportunities if we want more women’s participation,” she said.

“My own daughter works in an office where she finishes work at 7pm, which can be an awkward time for a woman to travel home alone. We both have access to our own transportation, but if I think of our country in general, women cannot work till late in the evening for reasons of security, responsibilities at home and, of course, the society. That’s why girls opt for careers in less creative sectors as they know they won’t be able to give their time. So, we must make provision for providing proper transport facilities to female employees of a company and include a daycare centre in every office. Our working style also has to be redesigned so it is possible to work from home. In a word, we have to make our (STEM) industry and work environment more women-friendly,” Hosne Ara Begum continued.

     “I was able to reach the position where I am now only because of the support and encouragement of my family. My husband let me pursue my dream, saying he could manage our household, if needed. In a country like Bangladesh, no one can live ignoring their family and society, particularly girls. So if girls don’t get the push, they won’t be able to move ahead. It’s the structure of our society that people can’t accept a woman as a working partner or as a team member; they just work with us because they have to. Though our country is lead by a woman, our society is still not comfortable with a woman leading in the workplace. So, when a woman has to face challenges in her job, most of the time she has to struggle alone. Of course, our country is yet to ensure a comfortable work environment for women. We are still lacking behind in providing opportunities, which we easily can, but we are working on it. One thing we have to take into account is that even if someday we give our 100 percent for women, the situation for them cannot be changed if we don’t change the mentality and structure of our society.”  n

Photos: Courtesy, Internet.

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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