Dr. Freida Abtan of Goldsmiths University, London. Experimental composer.

The brilliant, creative, gutsy women in tech

Internet Society
Mar 8, 2016 · 7 min read

It’s no secret the number of women involved in computing jobs has fallen over the past 20 years. In fact, a 2014 report showed that just 26 per cent of computing jobs in the U.S. were held by women, down from 35 per cent in 1990.

From discouraging diversity reports, to ingrained stereotypes, to societies expectations of women; there are no shortage of reasons why women are choosing to turn their back on careers that are flexible, rewarding, and incredibly well paid.

But you only have to look to realize that while the number of women in tech may be low — it’s definitely not zero.

Dr. Kanchana Kanchanasut, photographed in Bangkok this year, brought the Internet to Thailand in 1988.

Kanchanasut was actively involved in championing email and the Internet throughout South East Asia in the 1980s. In many instances the crucial roles of women like Kanchanasut have not been celebrated.

For International Women’s Day, the Internet Society have teamed up with Panos Pictures, a renowned photographic agency, to tell the stories of women from 11 countries who are using technology to make things happen for their communities, families and themselves.

‘Persevere. Stay at it. It’s a field that has so many opportunities, but also so many frustrations that will come about because you’re “just” a girl. But it’s a field that has had women be involved in it from the get-go — Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, to name just a couple.’

Nighat Dad

Nighat Dad is a Pakistani lawyer and Internet activist who founded the not-for-profit organisation the Digital Rights Foundation. In 2015, she was named in the TIME magazine’s list of next generation leaders, for helping Pakistani women fight online harassment.

In 2009 Dad started working around the issues of online violence against women and noticed a serious lack of legal support for victims. That was when she decided to work on tech related policies and laws, awareness raising around a secure and open internet for all.

She says that while growing up anything related to technology was considered a ‘boy’ thing. But in recent years she has noticed many more women interested in technology and finding their own way. She fears there are lots of forces which will try to push these developments back, but the very work Dad is doing will help to fight against those forces.

Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yusufzai attended workshops run by Dad, before being shot by the Taliban in October 2012. Dad has led campaigns to protect online freedom of speech in Pakistan as well campaigns against legislation that gives the government broad powers of surveillance online, most notably the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015.

‘Online spaces are, in our culture or in our society, are the spaces where women exercise their freedom of expression. Where they share their ideas or opinions openly. We don’t find these places in the physical space, we don’t have such spaces there.’

Nighat Dad

‘When I started studying math and computer science, I immediately started thinking about ways I could apply it to sound. Programming is like a secret power for me, that I can whip out and apply to my art in all sorts of ways.’

Iffat Gill, CEO of founder of ChunriChoupaal and The Code To Change

“The fact that there are fewer women than men in the technology field or in coding really takes a toll on the whole of humanity”

‘Computing, as an industry, is such a young field, that we’re still building this body of work to explain and communicate it to the rest of the world. I think the very thing that I want to show is how coding can be as creative a tool as music or drawing or words. You make something out of nothing, with pure words and thought structures. Learning programming teaches you to look at the world in a different way.’

Linda Liukas

Linda Liukas is a Finnish computer programmer, children’s writer and programming instructor. In 2014, her Hello Ruby coding book for children raised $380,000 on Kickstarter becoming the platform’s most highly funded children’s book.

Like many in the field, Liukas taught herself to code. Three years ago she started doodling the Ruby character in her notes, to help herself work through areas she got stuck on. She would try to imagine how Ruby would explain garbage collection or how object oriented programming works. And when she started drawing Ruby’s adventures, she began to see stories and characters everywhere in the technology world.

Liukas is a passionate believer in sharing these stories and showing children (and adults) the fun and creative side of technology.

Our kids are going to live in a world where everything around them is a computer. Coding is hugely important to navigate that, but it’s also about developing the imagination, attitude and approach towards technology.

‘My main advice would be to blaze your own trail. Don’t assume that the only options available to you are kind of the ones that get pitched in the career fair brochure. That the main thing is to focus on what you like to do, what you’re interested in, what makes you tick, and think about how your skill set can come together with those interests. And the technology industry is so dynamic, that there are so many opportunities for anyone to blaze their own trail, that people should always think that’s a possibility for them.’

Alissa Cooper is a director within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the group whose mission it is to make the Internet work better.

‘My aim is to give people working with youth the tools to use technology as a pre-text to have more important conversations. So for example, a sexual and reproductive rights organization that teaches people how to use condoms, OK. Let’s have a workshop where kids find out how a Wiki article is produced, and why the Wiki article on AIDS might be totally difficult to understand for them, and understand how it came to be. Or how to assess results when you Google if you’re pregnant or not, and how to take things with a grain of salt. You always tell people that they should be critical of information, so I want to give, like adults who work with youth, special and concrete ways to give youth the tools to do that.’

Dorcas Muthoni founded a software company, OPENWORLD LTD. at the age of 24. The company is now a leading e-Government and Business Software Services firm in the Eastern Africa region, writing software for the African Union and the Government of Kenya.

When I was doing my first job, I realized I was the only woman in the organization. So at one point, I wished myself to find a girl that we could intern, just to make sure that I could see more girls in the workplace. And as I was thinking ’Where are these girls, and why are they not joining this career?’ I realized that it’s about lack of information when making their career choices.

This thought turned into a plan and Muthoni set up AfCHIX, a mentorship and capacity building initiative for women in computing across Africa.

Linda Kobusinge is one of the women AfCHIX has inspired.

I wasn’t interested in web stuff, or computer stuff. But then my school was invited for the Girls in ICT Day, and those ladies of AFCHIX Uganda, they told us about their professions, how they were web developers and engineers, and they said someone can do a mobile app that can change the world and that maybe, one day, I’ll wake up and do the same thing.

Linda Kobusinge

When it comes to closing tech’s gender gap we need to change how people think.

This International Women’s Day the Internet Society is launching its Shine The Light campaign — a global effort to encourage everyone, everywhere, to use the hashtag #ShineTheLight and tag women they know who are using the Internet to make a positive difference.

Join in #ShineTheLight

The Internet Society. International Women’s Day. 8th March 2016

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