International Women's Day is a time to reflect on the ways in which technology changed my life and that of every woman. Our lives have been transformed through new tools to share and connect, and that has helped us change the lives of those around us.
But there’s a lot more potential – and need – for women in Asia when it comes to technology, especially in the field of computer science. In many countries, too many women don’t even have basic access to technology and the Internet. The digital gender gap is greater across developing Asia than elsewhere. But as more women in these countries come online, they could face the larger challenge that women face in moving beyond being just tech consumers, to becoming tech creators.
Achieving greater gender diversity in computer science requires addressing several fundamental issues.
First, girls need to be taught basic digital literacy so that they develop an interest in computing before they reach their teens. Starting young opens minds to the endless possibilities and the ways in which technology can have real impact on communities.
Next, tech is often perceived to be a man’s world with formal and informal support structures that work great for men, but not women. The result is that young women don’t get enough encouragement from parents and teachers to pursue a tech career. This is mostly because there’s great misunderstanding about what a technical job really has to offer.
We must also get better at illustrating how technology is about creativity and the potential to make an impact on the world. Technology helps people get things done faster and better. It enables consumers and empowers business owners. These are messages that appeal to women. I know this is what got me interested in tech.
When I decided to study computer science, friends and family wondered why I would want to fix machines in a lonely back office. What they didn’t realise is that computer science is about design, understanding human-computer interaction and applying computers in other fields such as healthcare or environmental science.
Far from sitting alone in a room, my typical day at Google involves collaborating with colleagues across multiple time zones. Google Maps on Mobile, the product I work on, is used by millions of people, including my friends and family. Their love for the product makes me feel proud of what I do, and motivates me to find ways to make it better and easier for people to find their way around the world.
Across Asia, Google has embarked on putting programmes and partnerships in place to help tell the amazing story of technology to girls and women. We offer scholarships and grants to organisations from Japan to Australia to enable more women to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). We’ve started inviting schoolgirls and their teachers to our offices to hear directly from us what it really means to work in tech and how we’re able to make a difference. We also get them excited about coding and to see it as a way of improving lives through real world applications.
Our efforts to encourage more women to develop in the field don’t cease once they have joined Google. We work hard to ensure they have access to the opportunities that they deserve and the support they need throughout their career. For example, when we learned that women within our tech organisation were 20 per cent less likely than men to self-nominate for a promotion, we began to share that data throughout the company. As a result, we’ve been able to close the gap.
The importance of having more female tech creators is very easy to see. Diversity in all its forms leads to better ideas and outcomes. As more women shape and create technology, its relevance and usefulness grows for many more users.
I hope more girls will join me in the field of computer science, and become tech-makers of the future. Participating in the creation of software, mobile applications and web services that change the way we do things is exciting. Giving girls the encouragement and support that they need to build a career in computer science will help empower more women tech creators to make an impact where it’s needed most.
Xinmei Cai, an engineering manager for Google, is among Asia-Pacific’s leading female