Canadian geek in Myanmar

Category: Women in tech

Technology for women

As with many Asian societies, women – especially mothers – are a core to the family and community. If we affect women, we affect everyone. On average (globally), 90% of the money women earn, they reinvest in the home and the family. Study after study shows that connecting women to the Internet has profound benefits to their lives, that of their families and even provides a significant boost to the national income. By deliberately focusing on breaking down barriers that stop women from connecting we accelerate the engines of growth for the country’s economy. And yet it’s estimated that women in developing worlds are between 25-40% less connected then men.  Women in Myanmar are 29% less likely to own a device then men according to a recent GSMA report.  I believe that this comes down into two things: 1. There’s not enough women in the tech sector and 2. Mostly because of the first problem, there’s not enough people building tech with the needs and perspectives of women in mind. The issue of not enough women in tech is vast and probably deserves its own piece in the future but there are immediate things that can be done regarding the second.

Beyond the issue of gender equality, women make up half of the population and consumer market so it just makes economic sense to include them. A great example of this comes from the gaming world (of course I’m going to use a gaming example). For decades, gaming – especially console gaming – was predominately male-focused. Then in 2009, Nintendo introduced the Wii and turned the gaming world on its head.  Not only did they sell over 10 million units that year alone, eight of the top twenty selling games in 2010 were on the Wii, predominately driven by fitness and dancing games. Nintendo tapped into a couple of key drivers. First, women themselves were a huge untapped gaming market. By making gaming accessible and removing barriers to entry, they were able to effectively double their addressable market. Their mantra of “5 to 95” meant that all their design choices were made from the ground up to be inclusive for non gamers. Second, women make almost all the decisions when it comes to household purchases. Nintendo’s focus on family-friendly games appealed to women and women just do not buy shooting and fighting games for their families.

As with most technology stories, content is king…or in this case, queen. Building products that appeal to females and their specific interests means that there’s relevancy, which is a key driver to any tech adoption. As mentioned earlier, women are the core of the familial units. This means that they are often the primary health care providers, not just for the children but also the elder and ailing. Women are also the ones who are focused on the household diet and nutrition and the ones who make most of the financial decisions for the household. Products which tap into the domestic needs of a household or help the women in their day to day lives will surely appeal. Appearing fun or frivolous isn’t going to work with this group.

Another driver for adoption is in the design process. Creating products for women means that you need to consider what would appeal to them – and I don’t mean pretty pink hearts. Rather, consider this from Nintendo’s perspective and create the product from the ground up with women in mind. For instance, women, especially women in developing markets have less leisure time then men, meaning they are less inclined to spend large amounts of time trying to understand a new tech product. Design decisions such as breaking up the content into bite sized pieces and ease of entry are critical to female adoption. Take a look at the Duolingo app as an incredible example of how to break down e-learning into consumable chunks. Easy to pick up and understand, spend a few minutes with and come back to when time allows.

When trying attract women to your product, consider the other traits that are more typical of females. Generally speaking, we tend to be the planners and researchers – whether it’s more superficial things like restaurants and vacations to more serious needs such as healthcare. In general, we are more risk adverse and subsequently more inclined to plan for future. Women are more social and do not spend a lot of their spare time on themselves but will take the time if it is for the benefit of their family.

Having said all of this, the single most effective way to get more women connected is to get more girls into STEM majors and encourage these young women to stay in the tech sector once they are done school. Groups such as Geek Girls are trying to do their part but it’s a big issue that requires more awareness and support across the board. Myanmar presents such a unique opportunity – here is a country that is coming online almost overnight and if we can ensure the voice of the women are heard just as loudly, there’s a good chance that Myanmar connectivity is balanced fairly evenly between genders as it comes online.

Leaning in with Sandberg

I had mentioned in a previous blog that I had written a very long, in-depth blog about my views on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and then promptly lost it to the fickle Draft Gods.  And now that it’s been over two months since I read the book, I don’t really remember a lot of the nuances of the book any longer.  Still, this book, and it’s messages have come up in a lot of conversations recently and has prompted me to write this blog even though I don’t recall all the points I had originally wanted to talk about.

First off it should be noted that I had no desire to read this book as I was firmly in the haters camp, figuring that a billionaire wasn’t going to “get it”.  I got through the first few chapters of the book with a lot of scoffing and eye rolling. I was always one of those people who thought that if you wanted to play the game then you put on your big girl panties and played by the rules…no whining, no asking for a time out or pressing the pause button.  Sandberg talks about that scene in the movie A League of Their Own where Tom Hanks says “there’s no crying in baseball!” and that’s exactly how I felt about the career thing.  What I didn’t really understand, or care about is that the rules were what was wrong in the first place.  As a woman who really didn’t have any burning desire for a family or kids, it really didn’t occur to me to care about the feminist movement or take up the sword for a cause that I didn’t care about.

Having discussed this book so many times over the past few months, I came to realize that all the women who I talked to took different messages from the book.  One poor girl even decided that if she didn’t forsake everything in her life, she’d never be a manager….though God knows how she may have gotten that since it’s counter to absolutely everything Sandberg says in her book.  In any case, here’s where it got interesting for me…it took me about half the book to finally get to the part that resonated for me, and it was even in the title!  “The Will to Lead”.  As one of the very few female CEO’s of a tech startup in Asia, my indifference to encouraging girls to want leadership roles or tech careers was not acceptable.  She’s absolutely right when she notes that our generation is failing those before us by falling into complacency.  Feminism is not a dirty word and this book finally taught me to embrace it and understand that this does not make me less of a professional or leader.

Like Sheryl, I’ve been called a diva, bossy, bitchy and many other things throughout my career simply for doing my job – oftentimes better than the men around me.   And unbelievably, it’s usually the women who are doing the name calling.  I have a little 2 and a half year old niece who is feisty, opinionated and frankly, awesome.  I head someone call her bossy the other day and promptly corrected them…she’s a leader and delegator.  I no longer use the word bossy as Sandberg rightly points out that only little girls are called bossy because the behaviours that lead to that word are expected and accepted of little boys.

For those who haven’t read the book, I highly encourage you to do so – and make your partners.  It’s not long – 240 pages – and very easy to read.  At the very least, watch Sandberg’s TED talk – it’s 15 minutes of your time.  Watch it and I hope that you too come out realizing that “Women can not be half the population and a special interest group at the same time”.  That quote is from Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in this awesome TED talk.

Women in tech in Myanmar

So recently I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In…actually, I wrote a fairly extensive blog post on it, which was lost and instead of rewriting it, I’ve decided to write this one first.  I will still write one on my thoughts of Lean In but suffice it to say, it’s been fairly motivating, which was surprising to me.

One of the things I’ve always been fairly passionate about is girls in tech, especially in developing markets like Vietnam and Myanmar.  Study after study shows that connecting women to the Internet has profound benefits to their lives, that of their families and even provides a significant boost to the national income.  And yet it’s estimated that women in developing worlds are between 25-40% less connected then men.  I believe that there are two major reasons for this:

1. There are not enough women working in technology therefore not enough representation of a female’s viewpoint

2. One fallout of the above is that there is not enough digital content catered to women

Myanmar presents such a unique opportunity in that it is a nation that is coming online all at once and if we can ensure the voice of the women are heard just as loudly, there’s a good chance that Myanmar connectivity is balanced fairly evenly between genders as it comes online.  What’s even more interesting is that in Myanmar, it’s estimated that 95% of the teachers in post-secondary STEM classes are female and over half of the students are girls.  

Even though more girls graduate with Computer Science degrees than boys in Myanmar, the fledgling tech scene in Myanmar is still dominated by men, especially at the higher levels of the organization. Even at the budding entrepreneur level, I have only ever met one girl but countless boys who are in various stages of launching a tech start up. I think one of the biggest factors that is causing the high drop off rate of girls with STEM educations versus women in tech leadership is that the girls are simply not aware of the career choices available to them with their degree – I noticed a similar trend in Vietnam.  Basically, girls graduate with a CompSci degree and think that they either need to become a software programmer or network engineer. Entrepreneurship isn’t as culturally accepted as it is in more developed nations, especially for young women who would be expected to be settling down with a family in a few years.  Meaning, it would be much easier to tell mom and dad they work at a big company (even as an admin) than to try to explain that they are building something that fewer than 10% of the nation could even use, let alone want to try. So these girls abandon a possible career in technology very early on, which is a real tragedy.

Here’s a story that Thaung Su Nyein from Information Matrix recently shared with me…

The ICT committee at the UMFCCI (basically Myanmar’s chamber of commerce) was hiring and received 12 candidates – 11 females and only 1 male.  Of those 12 candidates, only 3 (the male and two females) were interested in an actual tech role, the remaining 9 wanted to apply for secretarial / clerical jobs.  This hurts my head and of course motivates me to try to change the tide here before these behaviours become too ingrained like in other developing countries.

Back to the book Lean In, there many parts of that book, especially early on where I rolled my eyes…and yet as I completed it, I realized that the real message that I got is that the few women leaders out there need to start speaking up and helping to create a new generation of female leaders.  Until there’s more representation at the top, we will continue to struggle with the gender divide.  Oh..the other message I got loud and clear is that “feminist” isn’t a dirty word 🙂  In any case, I realized after reading that book that I needed to step up.  Not only am I a female CEO for a tech company, I am also in a market where the gender divide is even greater than what Sandberg deals with.  So, over the next few months, I hope to gather women in technology leadership roles in Myanmar together to help. These young girls need role models and mentors. They need to see a viable career in technology, one that can be highly rewarding for men and women.  More to come as we start to roll out some of our programs…