Cover Photo: Nicole Wolf/Unsplash

In order to further welcome women into the fold, it's now or never to challenge the status quo—and that's what Purnima Wijendra, co-founder as well as technical director of TechSprint Academy, has set out to do

Believing that talent and intelligence recognised neither gender nor race, Purnima Wijendra and Vani Mahavedan established TechSprint Academy to create a women-only coding school, not for the novelty of its gender exclusivity but its guarantee for a safe environment where the women can feel comfortable and unafraid without feeling the pressures of being seen as lesser or ridiculed by their male counterparts.

"When I was—and actually still am—a dean at the Kuala Lumpur School of AI, a non-profit school that aimed to provide free education in artificial intelligence to anyone who was willing to learn, we noticed that there was a staggering lack of female participants," she says. "For example, out of the 50 applicants, only three to four of them were women, and they were often very timid and shy, even when they clearly wanted to learn.”

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The issue of gender disparity in the workforce is an age-old one. According to the International Labour Organisation’s statistics on the gender gap in labour force participation rates (LFPR), the global LFPR is 75.2 per cent for men and women 48.7 per cent. In Malaysia, according to the Department of Statistics’s key assessments of the nation’s labour force in December 2020, the LFPR for men was at 80.8 per cent, whereas for women, it was 55.1 per cent. And though the latter’s percentage has seen a positive departure from its initial 44.5 per cent in 1982, that gap has yet to make a significant leap even after 38 years.

While there have been many initiatives aimed at breaking the glass ceiling phenomenon that usually surround minorities as well as women, this prevalent barrier to gender equity is now exacerbated by the pandemic, and is worsened by long-existing obstacles, such as societal or cultural beliefs (like traditional gender roles where men were expected to be the breadwinners while women are the caregivers), the lack of workplace policies that protect and address the unique needs of women-led households (even rarer for single or pregnant mothers), and a digital divide that grows wider due to these women having little to no access to modern technology.

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So despite the burgeoning transformation of our digital economy, Malaysian women are still at a disadvantage, especially those from rural, low-income communities—and it doesn’t help matters when one factors the gendered occupational segregation these women face, seeing as they’re often over represented in sectors like hospitality, services, health, education and social work. Even then, they’re often in lower wage positions, which, when compared to the number of women in leadership or managerial roles in sectors like finance, production or tech, is disproportionately high.

Wijendra, who is no stranger to that gender bias after her fair share of run-ins with toxic work cultures, observes that the lack of representation is what causes the lack of confidence in women to even participate in the aforementioned industries, which therefore prevents them from ever starting or furthering their careers.

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“The very first challenge we’ve had to tackle was getting women to realise that coding, or even joining the tech industry itself, was a viable career option they could take for themselves,” says Wijendra. “Because in Malaysia, the concept of women participating in supposedly male-dominated industries is still foreign to most of us—not just for those residing in rural areas, but for those in urban ones as well.

“Prior to creating TechSprint, I used to be the only girl you’d see in the tech team, and there were a couple of workplaces where I’d get pushed around or where they wouldn’t take me seriously. And while I’ve worked with men who were undeniably supportive, it still doesn’t change the fact those biased behaviours still exist. One time, when I was leading a tech team and was the only girl present, my superior, who was male, suggested a new technical method that I knew, through what I learned from experience, wouldn’t work—but when I tried to suggest otherwise, he bypassed me entirely and went straight to my juniors instead.

“The cherry on top was that despite the failure of that very method, my junior was promoted. So, having said that, it’s these societal and environmental factors that lead to the intimidation women feel when participating in this industry, which is then mistakenly construed as overly challenging or that it’s ‘a man’s job'.”

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"When women see more women doing things that were once thought impossible, it encourages them to be brave as well”
Purnima Wijendra

TechSprint Academy has several initiatives under its belt. Partnering with CodeOp Kuala Lumpur (another women-led coding school founded in 2018 by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Katrina Walker and was first based in Barcelona, Spain), not only did they provide Covid-19 relief scholarships up to RM4,000 for tech-related bootcamps, they had also launched an online career comeback programme called ‘Rebound’ in October 2020, where women of all ages and skill levels could either discover new, independent economic opportunities in tech or be welcomed back into the fold while upskilling themselves.

Empowerment and education go hand-in-hand,” states Wijendra. “That was always the main goal when we started TechSprint. And however slow-going that process is, those baby steps matter in the bigger picture—when women see more women doing things that were once thought impossible, it encourages them to be brave as well.”

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