While the ICT sector in Bangladesh experiences impressive growth, the participation of women in the sector remains disappointingly low. A number of programs are trying to correct the imbalance
Fouzia Leera is an Electrical and Electronics Engineer, who was always passionate about working in the ICT sector.
She followed her passion and started working soon after completing her graduation in 2007.
Currently, Fouzia is a senior engineer at Bangladesh Network Technology & Maintenance Department in Huawei Technologies Bangladesh Limited.
She said her engineer brother inspired her to join the ICT industry.
When asked about her experience of working in the ICT industry and especially for Huawei, she said, "Sometimes it gets difficult to manage one's family, children and social life along with work. But, at the end of the day when you see yourself as a part of changing technology like 2G to 5G, or your hand-built services which are benefitting the entire country, it brings more satisfaction than the hardship."
Fouzia also said that very few of her female friends joined the ICT industry as most of them opted for other jobs such as government service, banking and some have also just ended up as housewives.
According to a 2017 study report published by Bangladesh Open Source Network (BdOSN), around 25 percent female students studying at university levels had enrolled for Computer Science (CS) or Information Communication Technology (ICT) related subjects in over 90 universities and institutions of the country since 2005-2006. However, only 13 percent female professionals eventually joined the ICT industry after completing their graduation in the related subject.
Additionally, another report titled Bangladesh: Computer and Software Engineering Tertiary Education in 2018", a report published by the Asian Development Bank in 2017, showed that the job placement rate of women was lesser compared to men.
The report said that for women the placement rate was 58.6 percent while it was 82.2 percent for their male counterparts.
Asked about the lower rate of female participation in ICT job market, Tech entrepreneur and founder of SBK Tech Ventures, Sonia Bashir Kabir said, "The ICT industry of Bangladesh is young and has not become a conglomerate yet. As women want safer jobs, they opt for larger organisations. Additionally, in these places women with ICT skills are considered an asset. However, it does not mean that a woman must work in the ICT sector just because she has a degree relating to the industry. She can definitely choose her own career path."
"Many offices related to the ICT industry require its staffs to work more than 12 hours, which is extremely difficult for women in Bangladesh. In addition, as the industry is still very young there are too many risks associated with it. But in my opinion, with time, the industry will mature and then our women with ICT skills will be more interested to join the industry," she added.
The picture is similar on the global front too.
A data published by Eurostat on April 2019 showed that about 1.3 million students were studying Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in the European Union (EU) in 2016. Of them, on an average only 17% were female. The data also said that in some EU countries, female students in ICT and related subject is as low as only 10%
But history tells a different story - women were not always absent from this sector.
In France and the United States particularly, female participation in the ICT workforce was much higher during the 1970s and 1980s.
But the rate started to drop as the bulk of jobs were considered low-status and clerical by nature in those days.
Additionally, ICT related jobs also acquired an image of masculinity in society, which reduced the number of female participants in the industry.
The Bangladesh government has taken steps to encourage girls in the ICT industry to ensure at least 30 percent participation, through a training programme under World Bank financed Leveraging ICT for Growth, Employment and Governance (LICT) Project.
The project that aims to creating over 10,000 women as skilled human resource for the IT sector, ended on June 30 last year and provided training to 10,450 women.
A few private organisation like Huawei and Robi Axiata have come forward to provide ICT training to girls in rural areas of Bangladesh.
For the last three years, the ICT Division of Bangladesh government and Huawei have been jointly using the ICT buses to provide free ICT training to 21,238 female students in remote villages.
Israt Jahan Habiba, a higher secondary student of Cantonment Public School and College in Saidpur participated in the free training at one of the ICT buses.
She said during the training, she learned to use Microsoft office suit properly and got the basics of becoming a freelancer. She plans to use the skills to become a freelancer while she is still studying.
The government of Bangladesh also introduced the "She Power" project to empower women in the ICT industry. Last year, under this project, the ICT Division trained 10,500 women from 21 districts.
The nine months project used pilot project scheme to train the women in three categories- Freelancing, IT service provider and women call centre agent.
Around 6,700 participants successfully completed the training and got a four-month paid internship opportunity.
In addition, participants also received Tk34000 as honorarium at the end of their project. The project successfully employed around 3,000 women as freelancers.
Asnica Tabassum Mithila has recently graduated from the Chittagong Government Commerce College. She was attending her final year when she heard about the "She Power" project.
Asnica went to take the training and by the end of the sessions became a successful freelancer.
She said that in the freelancing category, the training taught her different office related software and graphics design.
She also mentioned earning $8,000 in the last 8 months and getting her first freelancing project while still an apprentice. Now, she is training other women in Chattogram and said that the training has inspired her to be a trainer.
Over the past decade, the ICT sector of Bangladesh has seen a tremendous growth. In 2017, BASIS member companies alone accounted for $800m in exports volume in the market with actual figures estimated to be $0.9-1.1bn.
Additionally, the government also set a target goal of $5bn in exports and 2 million employed by 2021.