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The harried IT whiz woman

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Though women IT professionals are marching ahead in Bangladesh, the gender divide in the sector continues to be a concern.

Yasmin Rimi

Men are often unwilling to cooperate with female colleagues despite the latter's proven work record. They are fixed on the thinking that women cannot come up with new ideas.

Farida Yasmin graduated from Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh and is now employed with the IT department of Sonali Bank as an assistant software programmer. She says, "When the computer and IT sectors were getting popular, I enrolled for computer science. I thought that as a new subject it will be challenging and will open up new avenues for me. And now I enjoy my work thoroughly."

Like Yasmin, many young people in Bangladesh are looking at IT as an attractive career option. They are working as network, graphics or software engineers, or as Web designers. And though IT continues to be a male-dominated profession, like most others in the country, the number of women IT professionals is certainly on the upswing.

In Dhaka University's computer science department, for instance, the final-year class has only two women, but the first year has 16 (out of a total of 67). Of the 420 students in the department, 120 are women. Shahjalal University of Science and Technology presents a similar picture. Says Chandan Kumar Karmaker, a lecturer in the computer science department, "When we began the department, only two girls joined our first batch. But now, 33 of the 120 students in the first year are girls. A number of them join various universities as teachers."

A survey conducted by the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services in 2004 estimates that there are 5,500 people working on software, and about 25,000 in the IT sector as a whole. And, while it is difficult to estimate the number of women, because most available data is not disaggregated by sex, indications are that a significant number of these people are women.

Challenges before women

But does the IT sector provide women with a level playing field? Tarana Ahmed is the Managing Director of Technochic Ltd, a company that works on animation, much of which is sourced from abroad.

Her specialisation is ultramodern graphics. She says, "Men are often unwilling to cooperate with their female colleagues, despite the latter's proven work record.

They are fixed on the thinking that women cannot come up with new ideas."

Executive Director, Bangladesh Computer Council, Dr A.M. Chowdhury, agrees with Tarana, and adds, "There is a huge demand worldwide for animation. Our women can capture the market because they have the creativity and patience that this work requires."

Yasmin gives an insight into the unique problems that women face in an industry that relies hugely on collaborative effort, when she says, "My boss and colleagues do help me a lot. But there are problems that only women face. For instance, if I have a problem with programming at odd hours, I cannot go to my friend's residence, like the boys do. I have to wait until office hours the next day even if I need to complete the work by next morning. In programming, consulting with friends is very essential, but this isn't always possible due to security reasons and the social restrictions on women."

Network Engineer Eva Rahman of Link3 Technologies Ltd agrees with her. She says, "Time management is another problem peculiar to women. No matter how important an assignment may be, she has to manage everything at home cooking, looking after the children and their education. In a challenging profession, one has to be able to devote time, especially during priority assignments, but a woman has to take care of her family first."

Explaining the prejudices at work here, Dr Jafar Iqbal, Head of the computer science department at Shahjalal University, says, "People tend to believe that women are less talented in science and mathematics.

Naturally, this notion has been proved wrong over and over. During the Russian Revolution, for instance, there were many female engineers and pilots. In Bangladesh, boys get the opportunity to study, so naturally they are doing well in the field. If the girls are given the same facilities, they will also do as well. And such participation by women is necessary for the overall economic development of the country."

Gender issues

A 2000 study on `Gender, IT and Developing Countries' by Nancy Hafkin and Nancy Taggart expresses similar concerns. "The gender gap in the digital divide is of increasing concern; if access to and use of these technologies is directly linked to social and economic development, then it is imperative to ensure that women in developing countries understand the significance of these technologies and use them. If not, lack of access to information and communication technologies becomes a significant factor in the further marginalisation of women from the economic, social, and political mainstream of their countries and of the world," it says.

Further, the report stresses, "Many people dismiss the concern for gender and IT in developing countries on the basis that development should deal with basic needs first. However, it is not a choice between one and the other. IT can be an important tool in meeting women's basic needs and provide the access to resources to lead women out of poverty."

Farzana Sattar, Assistant Manager of the IT department in Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company, agrees. "Networking is an important medium for the empowerment of women. Women will be able to achieve economic freedom when they have unfettered access to the huge IT market. It will also help women's participation in decision-making processes both at the family and social levels."

Women's Feature Service

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated July 28, 2006)
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