Empowering South Asian girls requires a cultural shift in mindset

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Recently I was in conversation with Rekha Rao, who is National Technical Director, Dynamics 365 at Microsoft who uses her personal example to encourage more girls to consider a profession in technology. Now Rekha did her computer engineering in India where she was always conspicuous as she was among a handful of female students at the college, but said that if it hadn’t been for her mother who refused to let her quit, she may have faltered and chosen another path. Full credit really goes to her mother who despite her own lack of education didn’t only encourage her to get an education but encouraged her to pursue an engineering stream which back then was almost exclusively male-dominated.
More recently I’ve spoken with South Asian female students pursuing computer engineering and realize that some of the same problems that existed back when Rekha was pursuing her computer engineering degree is still evident today, especially in the South Asian diaspora.
First of all there is the issue of peer pressure that ends up steering many South Asian female students away from STEM streams and many parents consciously or sub-consciously push their daughters to pursue finance, pharmacy or law. In the minds of many South Asian parents, a tech job is for their sons and so they will actively encourage them to pursue such education which leads to well-paying jobs. This is not to say there are no South Asian females pursuing tech-related education, there are many more in tech streams today, but like in the case of Rekha Rao, it is the parents who have actively encouraged their daughter to buck the trend, resist peer pressure to consider a more ‘attractive’ line of work and gain the confidence required to deal with a male-dominated sector.
Without such encouragement, many South Asian female students end up seeking courses and lines of work where women make up a large percentage of the workforce.
I keep hearing of so many initiatives to encourage more female students to consider the field of technology and experts stress the importance of mentors. Having a mentor is great but unless the family of a female student is on board with the plan and can foster a supportive environment at home, the role of the mentor will hardly matter because if parents have a mind-set that the field of technology is not suitable or desirable for women then it is a safe bet to conclude that a large percentage of South Asian students will difer to their parents’ wishes.
I have met parents who have for the most part played the role of an astrologist in the lives of their daughters in particular. They have planned everything for their daughter without her even being aware of the end goal- MARRIAGE by the time she is 25.
They are also acutely aware of the fact that they would like their daughters’ to get married to a well-to-do professional and there is a strong possibility that Knight in thick bi-focal glasses will be a techie and many techies tend to gravitate toward women who are more willing to be domesticated and who work in professions that aren’t demanding or overly challenging.
A mentorship program is really wasted because it is the parents who need mentors who can encourage them to think beyond their own prejudices and old ways of thinking. A radical change in mindset is required if South Asian girls are ‘allowed’ the freedom not only to choose their partners but also to choose to be a techie or a firefighter.

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