Bangladesh: overcoming gender challenges in the IT sector

10 March 2015
ITC News
Women make up more than 50% of Bangladesh’s population, but make up only 13% of the workforce in IT

Across the world, the number of women joining the information and communication technology (ICT) industry is low. Often this is down to simple things such as encouraging women to enter the sector, though in many places more coherent policies are needed to change the trend.

Take Bangladesh, for example, where ICT is a fast-growing sector comprising more than 200,000 professionals. However, in a country where over 50% of the population is female, the lack of women IT professionals is notable: only 13% of the IT workforce is women. And only 1% of ICT companies are led by women. Social barriers — including stereotypes and gender bias in colleges and universities — continue to block women’s progress in the IT sector.

Despite an increasing number of Bangladeshi women entering the workforce, the IT sector is unfortunately not the only industry lagging behind on gender equality. The Gender-related Development Index (GDI), an indicator of gender-gaps in life expectancy, education, and incomes, developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), ranks Bangladesh 142 out of 187 countries.

Building competitiveness and inclusiveness

In response to this, the International Trade Centre recently launched phase 3 of the Netherlands Trust Fund III (NTF III), a programme that aims to boost the competitiveness and export revenues in the IT and IT-enabled services (ITES) sectors in Bangladesh. Among the programme’s priorities is to increase the number of women within the IT and ITES industry at all levels. Alongside training and mentoring, the project raises awareness about IT career options through on- and offline outreach events, business case competitions and media work.

An early outcome of NTF has been the establishment by the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) of Women’s Forum, which aims to boost the role of women in IT. The Forum serves professional women who want to expand their reach to IT-related fields, as well as younger women currently working towards IT-related degrees.

‘For many women, these [entry] requirements simply cannot be met. They face tremendous pressure from their families who prevent them from joining engineering schools,’ says Afreen Hossain, founder of 'Code it, Girl!,' a community service that creates coding awareness among young girls to make them interested to learn programming languages.

That is a statement supported by Sabrina Akter, a software engineer with more than eight years of experience, who decided to follow her own dream instead of her family’s wishes. ‘My family did not support my choice of work. They’d rather I be a teacher so I can be at home by 5pm to take care of my husband and organize dinner,’ she said.

And while women are slowly entering the IT sector, they continue to face challenges if they manage to get a foot inside the door. ‘I receive half the salary of my male colleagues who do the same work. And many ICT companies have job circulars mentioning that women cannot apply,’ Ms. Akter added.