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Coding, gender, and why Pakistani children need to start learning code right now


Code School co-founder Sadaf Rehman talks with Ramma Shahid founder and CEO of Beti, an advocacy platform for women in Pakistan. Hear the talk about coding and how it can obliterate traditional gender barriers and help women get financially empowered.

There are some sobering stats on gender in Pakistan overall - we rank 134 out of 135 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum for gender divide. So it's not too far a leap to imaging that the typical gender issues that persist around us also apply to the tech sector. But it seems in addition to all the gender related baggage of conflicting priorities, hostile work environment, lack of policy support, lack of mentorship, harassment, gender bias, there are also some tech related stats stacked against women. Globally women are 21% less likely to have a cell phone than men, only 5% of women own startups, and in 2012 in Pakistan a p@sha study that said there are only 14% of women in the tech sector.

While there are some great initiatives globally like Girls Who Code, Girls in Tech, IEEE Womens Wing, Anita Borg Institute, and in Pakistan like Tech Karo, Circle and many more but by an large gender remains a major problem in Pakistan and even in the tech sector.

Why gender diversity is important for women and the industry

There are demonstrated business benefits to diversity. Data proves that diverse organizations are consistently better at problem solving, market value, attracting higher caliber of both male and female workers which impacts productivity, sales, revenue.

How tech can obliterate traditional disadvantages for women

Typically women face barriers to entry to the workplace – even something as basic as leaving the house, accessing public transport, or navigating the streets is unsafe. The lack of social acceptance, family permission, cultural stigma of working day to day in close proximity with unrelated males, or being financially independent are huge cultural barriers for women in Pakistan today.

I’ve been on the human capital development side of things for a while – an area where education and subsequent economic empowerment is directly tied to female empowerment. As long as girls are cut off from economic opportunities and will be oppressed. Financial empowerment is the antithesis to oppression.

I’ve always felt that tech is the great equalizer. Let’s take the most disadvantaged, disenfranchised segment of Pakistani society today – a girl in a remote rural village who is least likely to have access to school, healthcare, justice, who is most likely to be a victim of child marriage, honor killing, maternal mortality statistic, or be part of a culture that considers a daughter a burden while considering a goat an asset.

Now let’s say she has a skills. Say embroidery. Say handmade jewelry. Hala pottery. Rilli. Chunri. Things that she has been learning as part of the local culture for generations. Something she can do from her home. Imagine she has a cell phone and can log in to a global market place through Facebook or Instagram and sell her products and get money through a mobile wallet. She can do this using tech, without leaving the cultural walls set up around her home. What a life changer.

And why stop at vocational training kind of roles which are lower down the value chain. Say she has some education and teachers herself how to code via YouTube tutorials. Maybe she can take on freelance gigs sitting in her home and earn a living.

And remember being financially empowered is the antithesis to oppression.

Barriers to girls / women adopting tech today

But in almost every industry there is a massive problem. You have potential workers on one side and you have economic opportunity on the other side, and there is a gap keeping the two apart. And that is the skills gap. And this is such a big problem that we estimate that there are 375M people in the world that are stuck in this gap.

And that gap is not just teaching the technical side of things. In knowledge working, or even other jobs actually, front line basic jobs, we have found that behaviors and mindsets are actually at the heart of the gap. So even though we are churning out tens of thousands of tech workers, are they actually employable? And the tech industry is saying they're not. Things like holistic approach, problem solving, taking initiative, those are things I’ve heard tech industry leaders say are huge gaps in graduates today. And when we look at how to solve for those -really truly solve for those, behaviors and mindsets are actually set during childhood.

So Code School was really born because I really felt across all schools, across all socioeconomic backgrounds, across all genders, there is a critical, burning, urgent need to teach computational thinking to Pakistani children today. There is definitely growing awareness which is very positive, but by an large most schools, most parents, haven’t quite caught on to that here in Pakistan as much as they should have.

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