Women in tech ... or the lack thereof

  • Gender gap in ICT field and tech startup space still evident, but women in the space persevere 
  • Female Founder Fellowship launched for FI Spring Semester in KL; application deadline Feb 9

Women in tech ... or the lack thereof

THE technology space is widely perceived to be male-dominated with the gender gap issue a longstanding one that has found renewed focus in the last year or two.
The lack of female participation in the national economy at large has also been acknowledged by the Malaysian Government, with initiatives launched to address this gap.
In mid-2013, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development and Talent Corporation Malaysia Berhad (TalentCorp) launched a new portal to create greater awareness of gender diversity and inclusion in the workforce.
Called flexWorkLife.my, the initiative aims to raise such awareness through a repository of best ideas and practices on flexible work arrangements and family-friendly facilities.
"Given Malaysia’s ambitious transformation agenda, tapping on our women talent is critical if companies want to enlarge and enrich their talent pool in an era of scarce resources,” said Idris Jala, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, during the portal’s launch.
The lack of women in the ICT (information and communications technology) industry was reflected in a 2013 ICT Job Market Outlook report, which revealed that male ICT professionals in Malaysia tend to earn a median monthly salary of RM5,201 (US$1,641), while females earn a median salary of only RM3,855 (US$1,216), which works out to a 35% difference.
The annual report, produced by national ICT association Pikom and conducted in collaboration with recruitment portal JobStreet.com (which provided the salary data) and KPMG (which analysed the data), noted the pay disparity between genders.
"As you know, the ICT industry has been a male-dominated profession and only in recent years have women been encouraged to join. Thus, the main factor in the disparity [can be] attributed to the years of experience and positions held by women when compared with their [male] counterparts,” said Ramachandran, Pikom’s head of Policy, Capability & Market Research, when asked about the disparity.
The gender gap is also quite apparent in the number of female entrepreneurs active in the Malaysian scene, a lamentable fact even reflected in Digital News Asia's Digerati50, a special publication which profiled the top 50 movers and shakers in Malaysia's digital economy.
To gain some perspective, Digital News Asia (DNA) spoke to three female entrepreneurs for their experiences and thoughts on the issue.
Rose amongst the thorns
Women in tech ... or the lack thereofJoann Soon (pic), cofounder of Owe$ome and creative mentor at 1337 Ventures, points out that the Owe$ome team was made out of four ladies in the national-stage Angelhack hackathon competition held back in June 2013, and was perhaps the largest ‘girl group’ among 135 other mostly male developers.
“I get asked this question a lot at women’s events, and to be honest, I don’t really care nor rue [the fact of] the lack of women in this industry. That is simply because I never saw myself from a ‘female’ point of view, but from an equal standpoint,” she says.
However, Soon has had some personal experience with gender bias, and managed to overcome it.
“Once, a boss knew I was struggling with a piece of copy and stated brusquely: ‘Don’t crack yer’ pretty head over this!’ I was a bit flustered at first with that comment, then I got downright angry and thought to myself: ‘I’ll show you what’s in that ‘pretty head’ of mine!’
“The rest is history because I went on to prove him wrong, and kept coming up with one concept after another!” she recalls.
Mellissa Lee, country manager for Malaysia at KakaoTalk and formerly founder of PerkPool, which provides employee benefits and corporate perks for SME (small and medium enterprise) employees in Malaysia, also says she does not feel out of place in the local tech scene.
“The startup programmes and events I have attended normally have about 15-20% female attendees, so I may feel like the minority, but I don't feel out of place because the community is generally so welcoming and accepting,” she says.
But while Lee does not feel out of place nor discriminated against in the technology space, it is in the traditional business world where her relatively young age and gender comes into play.
“I feel it in the corporate boardroom more with older, male leaders in traditional industries who tend to dismiss your ideas or even have small tell-tale signs like looking at their phones when you suggest something,” she says.
For Eliza Noordin, who began her foray into technology at the tender age of 11 when she started programming on her own, the gender disparity was most felt during her university days.
She elected to pursue a degree in electrical engineering, a field not popular among women, but since she was attuned to programming, learning to put programming knowledge into electrical circuits was a “somewhat exciting” prospect for her.
“When I was at the university in the United States, I felt out of place. It was hard to get group-mates. Students at my university were already accustomed to playing around with circuit boards and the tools in the lab. Unlike them, I didn’t have that hands-on experience.
Women in tech ... or the lack thereof“Hence, it was very difficult to get partners to do projects with as majority were men and they were comfortable to work among themselves. That was when I learned to strive to be at par with men,” she says.
Eliza (pic) is currently the cofounder of Nashata.com, a solutions provider for modest activewear and is an advisor at Gorgeous Geeks, an interest group which seeks to encourage women to use technology as part of their lifestyles and which provides mentorship or support for women in the industry. Gorgeous Geeks also seeks to inspire other women to join the industry.
During her corporate career, spanning organisations such as Intel, Microsoft Malaysia and Telekom Malaysia, Eliza had to deal with men more than women, as there were mostly male developers and entrepreneurs in the industry.
“It was alright as they never treated me differently. I guess the software industry is not as hardwired as the electrical engineering world,” she adds.
These days, Eliza has a new challenge at work, having to adjust from dealing with mostly men to mostly women.
“There is femininity in the new venture I started – activewear for modest women. I have to deal with designers, fashionistas and customers, the majority of whom are women. I am glad though, as after a while having to deal with mainly men at work, I wanted to be closer to the female world,” she says.

Next page: Challenges in closing the gender gap

Closing the gender gap
Women in tech ... or the lack thereofWhen asked for their opinion on why there were such low levels of women in the industry, Lee (pic) notes that she still doesn’t see many female tech entrepreneurs around.
“Although I don't know if that means there just aren't any, or if it's any issue of visibility.

"There's also the [misconception] that tech is not interesting. I see a lot of articles online about this topic, and sometimes I wonder if this just reinforces the stereotype more than it helps.

"For example, there are more articles on why there are so few women in tech compared with articles that feature, highlight or champion successful women in tech.
“Aside from that, since tech is generally seen as a male-dominated field, women could feel uncomfortable working in an environment or office where there's a 95% male workforce,” Lee adds.
She also notes that there is a severe lack of women role models and mentors in the Malaysian tech community.
Meanwhile, Eliza says that in the technology world, it is important to have the "confidence to be who you are."
“I have many female friends who studied computer science and engineering like me, some at highly notable universities in the world. I noticed many were not able to apply their engineering and software development skills after they graduated, unless they worked overseas,” she says, adding that most jobs available in the Malaysia were administrative, management-related or high-level positions.
Eliza reports that she saw more females in the technology industry 10 years ago compared with the present day, and thinks the number of women are declining. In addition, many females who graduated from computer science and engineering courses tend to shy away from the technology field as they feel it is a man’s world.
“From my observation, the majority of women prefer to work among women. Many women need the support system at work, to socialise and talk about women things. My former techie female colleagues and I do not need such an environment at work. Till today, I do not need to go out and do 'girly things' with female friends during lunch hour.
“If a woman desires to have typical working environment to suit women in particular, she would never survive in the tech world. It is not about what gender you are, it is about how good you are.

"However, I find there is a growing trend of women in the digital marketing arena. This field could be more suitable for women – not too ‘techie,’ yet requiring a bit of technical knowledge,” she adds.
Blind to gender
All three ladies interviewed echoed a common sentiment, that they see themselves as professionals first and foremost, rather than a woman in a man’s world.
Soon confesses that she believes she does not have an intelligent answer to the age-old question of why there are so few women in the technology space. “My take is – a woman is one of God’s most refined inventions, looks great in pants as well, can learn how to understand tech and read code, and be a leader.
“She needn’t always wear heavy makeup, leave the house in a pantyhose, and can lug around her bulky laptop bag everywhere like it’s her ultimate Gucci fashion statement! I am a prime example of this inelegance!” she says.
In her view, women who seek to claim their spot in the industry would not face gender-related challenges if they view themselves from an 'equal opportunity' standpoint. “It has not affected me in any way nor stopped me from exploring the tech startup space,” she adds.
Eliza echoes a similar sentiment, feeling that any woman who manages to operate in the tech startup space would never reach that stage unless she doesn’t view herself as a woman at work; but rather as just another techie, or professional in the field.
“Women in this field whom I know are confident enough to do whatever they want to do, and are not being seen or labelled as women. The challenge I feel is not the men, but fulfilling women’s needs. I find the support system among women at work is important for women in technology. 

“Although I feel, in Malaysia, a woman in technology can excel as there are many opportunities at the managerial level, where communications, management and technical skills are important,” she says.
Breaking out Women in tech ... or the lack thereof

For women seeking to jump into the technology field or even start their own businesses in the space, Eliza points out that they must first be aware of the realities of the field.
“The technology field, especially ICT, requires one to keep learning on his or her own. In my opinion, if you don’t do coding or software development, your engineering skills will go obsolete fast.

"What you learn from the university is very basic. You need to be self-driven, learning new things on your own, in tech world.
“Some women may fear that reality as they may want to choose a simpler path in life. Continuous learning is a personal effort, not a guided one. So, you need to be able to learn fast on your own and learn from making mistakes quickly, and move on. There is nothing personal about not knowing enough,” she adds.
Eliza notes that as it is, there are not many women in the industry with a deep understanding of technology, so building products is not usually a feasible option unless they have business partners who can complement them and fill the technological gaps.
“However, e-commerce and digital marketing can be quite suitable for women. I think many women with basic knowledge in technology can start their own business as long as they have the right team, willing to get their hands dirty and move on fast,” she adds.
When asked what advice she’d give aspiring entrepreneurs, Soon says the first would be to view themselves as equals.
“Don’t give up, and when you see great opportunity in an idea – grab the bull by the horns. If things aren’t looking so great, study the reasons and decide whether to pivot your idea or persevere.
“We’re in a scene where things can change in a matter of a day or a month – so have fun whenever you can because well ... it’s going to change before you know it,” she says.
Despite the continued lack of visibility of women in the startup space, other aspects of a support network geared toward them have developed over time. There are now many choices, support groups and opportunities for women, including Gorgeous Geeks, which offers programmes and focus groups for youth, entrepreneurs and professionals.
There is also the Kuala Lumpur chapter of the Secret {W} Business community, founded to support female entrepreneurs, change-makers and innovators, which Lee is the ambassador for.
In addition, the Female Founder Fellowship (FFF) is now being offered for the Spring 2014 Founder Institute semester in Kuala Lumpur.
The fellowship is awarded to the most extraordinary female applicant for each chapter, giving them the opportunity to enrol in the Founder Institute for free. The recipient will be recognised as a female with the utmost potential to become a successful technology entrepreneur.
The FFF is part of the Founder Institute's on-going effort to see more than 30% female-led companies graduating from the programme.
Tzu Ming Chu, co-director and mentor of the Kuala Lumpur chapter, says when the organisation announced the programme in 2011, about 16% of Founder Institute companies were founded by females.
Since then, the results of this programme have been “astounding,” as the overall number of female-founded companies has increased to a total of 26%. Which is more than twice as high as most other incubators, Chu claims.
“We would like encourage more women entrepreneurs in tech in Malaysia. We feel women in Malaysia make great entrepreneurs and have a great track record in tech entrepreneurship -- Goh Ai Ching from Piktochart and Stephanie Chai from Luxenomad, who have been mentors on the programme, are key examples,” he adds.
In order to be eligible for the FFF for the 2014 Spring Semester, applicants must complete the application and admissions test by the early application deadline by 11:59pm, Saturday Feb 9. For more information, click here.

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