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Meet Zahra Khan, team lead at software house 'Arbisoft'

Breaking gender stereotypes, one code at a time.
Updated Nov 03, 2016 03:17pm
Photo courtesy TechJuice
Photo courtesy TechJuice

TechJuice, Pakistan's premier platform for technology news, in collaboration with Dawn worked on the series Girls Can Code.

On a hot and humid day of July, I walk into Arbisoft, a software development organisation standing tall at Thokar Niaz Beg, Lahore. I have come here to meet a young woman named Zahra Khan who is a Computer Science graduate and is now working at Arbisoft. Zahra has already shattered hundreds of stereotypes by venturing into technology, a field which is largely considered male-centric. Significant achievements in a short career span of five years make her case even more appealing. She is becoming stronger in this field with each passing day. Her skills, expertise and experience has earned her the position of team lead and is managing a project for one of Arbisoft’s notable partners Travelliance.

As I enter, I am ushered into a meeting room. In a matter of few moments, Zahra enters the room and greets me with a firm handshake. She seems reserved initially. However, as we move on she opens up and starts sharing her thoughts and experiences with great peculiarity.

“I am a senior Software Engineer and Project Manager at Arbisoft and I have been here for four years. Before this, I worked at FiveRiver Technologies as a team lead for a period of one year,” says Zahra, as we start our conversation.

Zahra vividly recalls her passion for different professions while growing up. “At different junctions of my life, I dreamt of different workplaces and different professions. There was a point in my life when I wanted to be a novelist, then a lawyer, and a psychologist.”

During the scheme of these things, Zahra always had the backing of her parents. No matter what she did and what she opted for, her parents were always on her side.

Goal-setting is so overrated. There are people whose lives revolve around setting goals and subsequently struggling to achieve them. Zahra has been the exact opposite; “I was trying to find myself. I didn’t set a goal, I let myself explore and experiment with different things, which is how I ended up taking Computer Science for graduation at Kinnaird College.”

“Although, it was an unplanned decision,” she happily recalls, “It all started with a basic programming course in the first semester. I, along with a friend, developed a puzzle game with fancy animations. It felt so exciting looking at that game and the feeling that I did it was beyond explanation. I loved it. I decided this is exactly what I wanted to do.”

Experimentation with careers came to an end after she found her passion in programming. Her batch comprised of around 40 girls and almost half of them dropped out or chose other majors because they thought Computer Science was not meant for them. The rest few went on to graduate but only a handful joined the workforce. Zahra grew up in a very favourable environment where nothing was enforced. One of her parents was an engineer and the other a homemaker. They let her free to take a career path of her own choice.

"Let the children decide for themselves. If a girl wants to play with dolls, let her play, If the girl wants to play with cars; fair enough, let her play."

However, not every Pakistani girl is fortunate enough to enjoy this luxury. Gender stereotypes are associated right from infancy. In almost every household, girls’ rooms are coloured pink and furnished with dolls while boys’ rooms are painted blue. Parents have pre-conceived notions and careers decided for their children. In Pakistan, ask an average young girl of her career choice, and in most cases, it would be medicine; whereas, a young boy would choose to be an engineer in majority cases. Children are not born with such aspirations. It is the parents or immediate environment that influences children’s choices by assigning gender-specific roles.

Zahra believes this is the fundamental reason behind women not pursuing technology.

“Let the children decide for themselves. If a girl wants to play with dolls, let her play. If the girl wants to play with cars; fair enough, let her play. Don’t enforce yourself on them. Let them be the decision maker,” believes Zahra.

If this thought process prevails, millions of capable individuals will not fail because of choosing the wrong career path. Eventually, these individuals will not make decisions based on what the society deems appropriate for them. Instead, they will opt for things they are passionate about. Another reason for a smaller number of women in technology is a lack of women-friendly work environment. “After graduation, I was interviewed at several places. I received good offers. But the reason I chose the first organisation and then ArbiSoft was the sense of psychological and job security. I didn’t get the same feeling at other workplaces, although the offers were very good - sometimes better,” says Zahra, thoughtfully.

“It is completely unacceptable that women are expected to ‘be a man’."

She believes that skills can always be learned and expanded upon, but if the place is not secure and comfortable, and if her voice is not being heard, she will never work there. It is perhaps more about the people you work with. People make or break an organisation. You will feel comfortable working at an organisation where people are receptive to women; they encourage women rather than suppressing them and they don’t look at them as outsiders who should not be pursuing technology or working at an office.

At her workplace, Zahra doesn’t look at herself as a disadvantaged minority. “We are all individuals, who believe in Arbisoft’s core values and we are all working together to achieve them.”

This makes things easier for her and everyone else. “As a team lead, I don’t project myself as a ‘female’ team lead or a ‘female’ team member. Roles and careers are not defined by gender. Roles are defined by the capabilities and skills set.”

Most progressive and growth-focused companies are like that. Unless the company is led by people with a patriarchal mindset, why wouldn’t a company hire, promote or let an individual come to the front if she is good for the organisation? There are instances when women outperform men. Diversity at workplaces can have life-changing effects on an organisation and its workforce. Companies throughout the world are starting to understand that by neglecting upwards of 50 per cent women population of the world, they shall deprive themselves of a huge potential skills set, innovation, and diverse perspectives.

“Women are good at multi-tasking, more hardworking than their male peers and they're often perfectionist. You will always see them ready to go an extra mile to finish a task,” says Zahra.

Due to their disadvantaged position in society, many women lack confidence. According to a recent survey, a girl will not apply for a job even if her skill set matches 80 per cent to an average advertised job; whereas for the same job, a boy will apply even if 60 per cent of his skills match. There is a dire need to let our women know their true worth so they can unleash their true potential.

“It is completely unacceptable that women are expected to ‘be a man’. A woman’s identity needs to be respected. She should be accepted with all her traits and characteristics. This is the how she will excel,” claims Zahra.

“Girls need to step up their game. They need to take initiative and be proactive. How would an organisation know that the girl is passionate and capable if she doesn't show it?” she asks.

In Pakistan, a large number of women are leaving workplaces at a crucial time of their careers owing to marriage or home-making. Women on a mid-career level have no role models to look up to.

In a society like ours where patriarchy is deep rooted, there needs to be a continual discussion on the role of women in technology and on making workplaces a more inclusive space for women.

“Workplaces need to be flexible. By losing women workers, they are losing trained and skilled employees as well as great skill set and a lot of money. By providing women the options like work from home, flexible work hours, pick and drop services, and paid maternity leaves, women can be retained. On the flip side, women need to prioritise what is important for them. A good work-life balance reflects on your health, family and career choices,” adds Zahra.

At both of the workplaces, Zahra was promoted as a team lead in a matter of just a few months. Only because she hasn’t let stereotypes define her. She is sharp, focused on her career and doesn’t pay heed to anyone who thinks women are ‘bossy’ or ‘dominating’ — a term frequently used for a career-oriented woman.

Zahra is working in a non-individualistic working environment where everybody is treated equally and fairly. The focus is on growth and excellence. But in general, this is not the case. As long as the patriarchal mindset remains, we will not have more women taking computer science majors and subsequently entering the technology industry.

In a society like ours where patriarchy is deep rooted, there needs to be a continual discussion on the role of women in technology and on making workplaces more inclusive space for women.

For young girls, Zahra believes they should “stop being too critical of themselves. Girls, like their male counterparts, can achieve anything they want. Girls can code if their true passion is coding.”

This article was originally published here and has been reproduced with permission.