Bangladesh now has a thriving technology startup ecosystem. Companies are reaching scale, attracting significant venture funding and hiring in large numbers. However, one of the byproducts of this happy story is that it will leave women behind. In the US, for example, only about 20 percent of technical roles are held by women. Companies compensate by hiring more women in non-technical roles such as sales and marketing but it is key that women are well-represented in engineering, product management and data science because of the following reasons.
First, technical teams design, build and launch products. The earliest motion-sensored soap dispensers did not recognise darker skinned hands because they had been built and tested by primarily white engineers. Similarly, when engineering teams are mostly male, critical perspectives on how to make products work for women are missing from the room.
Second, it's an equity issue. Technical roles receive higher pay than non-technical ones. Those in these roles are tapped to be co-founders often in exchange for a portion of the startup. In a few years, they gain the skills to go and start their own companies. Unless we have women in engineering-related roles, they will be shut out of the opportunities and wealth that the startup ecosystem is creating.
Having spoken to several tech companies in Bangladesh, I know there is sincere interest in addressing this issue. Below are three recommendations to start with.
Write inclusive job postings: I see many Facebook and LinkedIn posts looking for “go-getters”, “dreamers” and “rockstar engineers” in order to excite top talent. However, these are traditionally male attributes of success. Women are often penalised in society for having these same qualities, and, thus, they don't automatically associate themselves with aggressive adjectives. Highlighting qualities that men and women feel equally comfortable relating to will encourage more women to apply.
Be mindful that networks are inbred: Most recruitment happens through referrals from networks of friends and coworkers. Thus, we need to pause and see how many women are in our networks. Are they at least half female? If not, we should not be complacent about using our existing network as the primary hiring pool. Even within current networks, make extra effort to ask women for referrals as they will be more likely to know other women professionals.
Ensuring a gender-balanced interview pipeline: Set an HR target to have equal numbers of male and female candidates interview for open technical roles. Undoubtedly, this will lengthen the recruiting cycle since it will require reaching outside of existing networks to source candidates, but if there are few women coming to interview in the first place, even fewer will make it. Proactive outreach to engineering universities, setting filters for LinkedIn candidate search, organising women-only hackathons and posting within women-specific STEM groups are different ways to reach female talent.
It is true that fewer women study engineering compared to men, not just in Bangladesh but globally. However, this is a chicken-and-egg problem. Seeing successful role models in tech will encourage women to study STEM subjects—growing the pipeline of talent to recruit from. Thus, I hope companies will take up the challenge: crack the egg of recruiting more women into positions of technical leadership to ensure inclusive products and access to opportunity for women in Bangladesh.
Shammi Quddus is a recent graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Harvard Kennedy School. She holds an undergraduate engineering degree from MIT, USA. She is currently working at Google in California, USA.