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Women that defy

Updated May 07, 2013
The panelists Jehan Ara, Sheba and Nida pictured at the discussion. — Spider Magazine Photo
The panelists Jehan Ara, Sheba and Nida pictured at the discussion. — Spider Magazine Photo

As part of the Habib Lecture Series, the Habib University recently held a panel discussion titled “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Women of Pakistan in Science and Technology”.

The lecture was moderated by Habib University's Dr. Nosheen Ali, and the panelists included Jehan Ara, President, Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA), Sheba Najmi, Code for America Fellow and former Yahoo! Mail lead designer, and Nida Farid, an entrepreneur, project manager and renewable energy consultant.

The discussion brought up some fairly startling figures. For example, while 55 per cent of women enrol in science and technology-related disciplines in Pakistan, only 14 per cent are employed in those fields. What happens to the rest? Some choose a life of domesticity, others prefer to work in a less male-dominated environment, and the remaining work in their field of study for a short time, only to be disappointed by the lack of a clear career path.

Considering the hurdles women face in technical professions in Pakistan, the panelists, all of whom are leaders in their own right, are shining examples of what’s possible for women.

Jehan Ara – Empowering women for roles in IT

Probably the most well known of all the panellists, Jehan Ara is the President of P@SHA, the representative trade body of IT and ITES (Information Technology Enabled Services) businesses in Pakistan. Interestingly enough, Jehan Ara started her career as a journalist and also worked in advertising, marketing, PR and communications before becoming involved in multimedia and interactive media. “It was the ‘in’ thing and an amalgamation of all the areas I had worked in and loved”, she says.

She wishes she could have pursued a degree in computer science when she was younger, but had no idea that the option even existed. “I was good at math and science, I had even dabbled in basic programming, but I was ignorant of the fact that I could become a software engineer.” Instead, Jehan Ara let her experience in various disciplines be her guide when she started Enabling Technologies (a software house), in partnership with Zaheer Kidvai in the early 90s. Although a small company, Enabling Technologies had some fairly high net worth clients, including Unilever, IBM, ICI and ABN Amro, among others.

As the CEO of a software house, Jehan Ara says she attended every single P@SHA meeting, but was obviously unhappy with the work of the body. Eventually she ran for a VP post in the association, and later became the president. It appears that P@SHA’s committee may not have been entirely supportive of women at that time, because Jehan Ara comments that when she contested for the posts, “I suspect they thought that as a ‘weak’ female I was the least controversial to take on the role. Little did they know that this weak and harmless woman would take the role with such gusto!”

Jehan Ara’s passion at the moment, she explains, “is to figure out how to increase the number of women working in the ICT sector and also to encourage more women to start their own companies.” She says that among the many reasons for the lack of women in these fields, the most pertinent ones have to do with women’s own mindset: “Women have not grasped the opportunities in this field, and that goes even for the qualified and competent ones. Then there is this myth that IT is just for geeks and that it doesn’t help solve the problems of society; nothing could be further from the truth.”

Jehan Ara believes one of P@SHA’s roles and challenges is to convince a larger number of women that many of the problems that our society currently faces can be solved through IT, so that they are able to understand how their participation in this field can add value. Eventually, says Jehan Ara, “women just need to give themselves the opportunity to be successful, and to stop double-guessing their own ability.”

Sheba Najmi – Reframing relationships with technology

The highly charged Sheba Najmi exudes enthusiasm and determination as she speaks about the fellowship that changed her life forever. Before she did the fellowship, Najmi completed an MS and BS in Symbolic Systems from Stanford, and spent seven years working in user interface design at Yahoo! Mail. Although there are fewer barriers for women in technology careers in the US, Najmi says they still exist.

“There were these really cocky guys in Silicon Valley known as ‘brogrammers’, who created an environment where it was hard for women to ask questions and learn anything new for fear of being looked down on.” Throughout her time at Yahoo!, Najmi was eager to do something more meaningful with her life. She took the leap in 2011 and applied to Code for America (a public service programme that helps bring governments and citizens closer together by using technology) for a fellowship. Najmi jokingly calls it, “the Peace Corps for geeks.”

She was one of “26 completely empowered doers” chosen for the programme. Taking a two-thirds pay cut, Najmi worked for a year as project lead to develop Honolulu Answers - a citizen-centric website similar to Google - which allows residents to ask the municipal government questions and receive comprehensible responses. But it wasn’t enough; using her Code for America experience, Najmi decided to come to Karachi and organise the country’s first ever Civic Hackathon. The Hackathon was a gathering of a cross-functional group of people, ranging from doctors and developers to designers and concerned citizens who came together to brainstorm about city-related problems and tried to find tech-based solutions for them.

Najmi says she was completely “blown away” by the enthusiasm of the 11 teams who worked for six hours to come up with prototypes of open source apps and websites which could help create government-citizen partnerships that can be further built on. While she is pleased with the success of the Hackathon and excited about working with the eleven teams in the future to ensure that their prototypes see the light of day, she’s got even bigger plans. “I am looking at setting up a Code for Pakistan which is modelled on Code for America.”

Although the year-long fellowship is the core of the Code for America programme, Najmi explains that it also acts as an incubator for civic start-ups (as potential government technology vendors), and empowers teams of citizen brigades to set up hackathons similar to the one held in Karachi. She hopes to replicate these ideas in Pakistan and is currently looking to register Code for Pakistan as an NGO. “I want to put forth this idea of Gov 2.0 which has caught on all over the world; which is to use apps and data to reframe the relationship between local government and citizens.”

Nida Farid – Working for an energy-efficient Pakistan

Nida always wanted to be a pilot when she was growing up, but her parents’ insistence that she complete a professional degree before pursuing her dream led her to MIT to do a Bachelor’s in Aerospace Engineering. “I wanted to study in Pakistan, but the country’s only aeronautical college did not accept women at that time,” she says.

After her Bachelor’s, Farid went to Zurich to complete a Master’s degree specialising in aircraft engines at ETH. Later she worked as Programme Manager at a supplier of Airbus, overseeing the design of a crucial electro structural assembly for the new A350, as well as an energy consultant with a specialty in wind energy.

In spite of her successful career, Farid was keenly aware that she needed to “give something back to Pakistan; it was just something that my parents and teachers had always ingrained in me.” Two years ago, as Pakistan’s energy crisis worsened, Farid actively started looking for ways to help. Eventually she decided to commute between Switzerland and Pakistan, and start the Karachi Energy Conservation Awareness Campaign.

“When people think of conserving energy, they always assume it means switching off lights, fans and ACs; however, real energy efficiency means buying eco-friendly appliances that consume less electricity.”Instead of appealing to people’s social consciousness, Farid is talking to them about the financial advantages of using energy-efficient appliances. She is currently spreading her message through trainings at large corporations and schools (where children’s parents are always invited).

Rather than try to reach out to all types of people, Farid is targeting “the richest 20 per cent of people in Pakistan, because they are accountable for 70-80 per cent of all the electricity used.”

What’s at stake if she succeeds? The numbers she quotes are nothing short of astounding.

“If I manage to convince even 10 per cent of my target audience to become more energy efficient, we are looking at a monthly saving of $500-1000, which works out to $150 million per year. As a result, the government will save $100 million in subsidies, and then because of reduced energy demand and the increased economic output for energy, the impact on the economy will be half a billion dollars per year.”