Both Sides of the ‘Binary’: WitCon 2018

Graphic by Nicole Brunner, Year 11

Words

By Patrick Kho and Nadia Vaillancourt, Year 11

 

Whether you’re looking at startup founders, investors or software developers, women in the tech industry often find themselves in rooms filled with men. Knowing that 74% of young girls express an interest in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) while only 24% of those working in said fields are women, the issue of lack of representation for women in tech clearly isn’t due to lack of interest: rather, it is systematic and society often deters girls from it.

 

As a young girl aspiring for a career in STEM, Audrey Pe discovered the harrowing truths behind the industry’s lack of gender parity, including a lack of female role models, gender biases and unequal growth opportunities. Advisors whom she thought were trusted even attempted to dissuade her from her interests in the sciences: she was told to steer her interests and goals towards the humanities, and was not celebrated or congratulated for her fascination with the impactful and ever changing field of technology. And so, as a computer science student and an aspiring tech journalist, Audrey formed Witech — short for Women in Technology — a community organisation and blog aimed at placing the achievements of women in STEM centre stage. This year, Audrey’s organisation saw the creation of the Women in Technology Conference (WitCon), an annual conference dedicated towards the same purpose. WitCon 2018, the first of its kind, was held on March 3rd.

 

Four BSM students — including two Winston journalists, Patrick and Nadia — had the pleasure of attending the conference. Upon our arrival, we were delighted to see an equal number of male and female attendees and meet a wide variety of college and high school students coming from different areas of Metro Manila.

 

The conference began with a keynote speaker: Regina Lim — the Managing Director of Accenture Technologies — who taught us that the “pwede na” (meaning: “good enough”) mentality of Filipinos may sometimes hinder our aspirations. When asked about how being a woman has impacted her career in tech she emphasised the fact that gender biases in the workplace are not as extreme in the Philippines because of the matriarchal nature of Filipino households and our culture’s appreciation of OFWs, most of whom are women. However, as she rose through international ranks, she found that “as an Asian and a woman, there’s a tendency for [others] to talk over you”. She went on to state that “sometimes, we have to share what we have accomplished and not hold ourselves back”.

 

Afterwards, representatives from Felta Multimedia joined us and conducted a robotics workshop, teaching us how to use the robot’s colour detection systems as commands for the motors. The rigorous activity demanded for our collaboration, challenging us to work with others.

 

Aside from the guest speakers and robotics workshop, we had the chance to hear presentations from women in different fields of technology about their work. We chose to attend the biotech talk, which focused on genetic modification of crops and other organisms. The presenter, Marge Pelayo, was brilliant. She not only seemed very knowledgeable in her field but also engaged her small audience in a personal and dynamic way. As someone who lacks a personal interest in the sciences, Nadia found that she was still able to not only understand but enjoy Pelayo’s presentation.

 

Pelayo also had some eye-opening insights on what it means to be a woman in technology, and what the gender gap is like in STEM fields. The negative stereotypes of women and the multicultural stigma faced by women pursuing STEM have all too tangible repercussions: not only are women paid less on average, but female authors of scientific papers have less citations than male authors. Female works are therefore viewed as less legitimate and are thus circulated less widely, resulting in fewer accreditations. Like with any statistic of this nature (higher proportion of black people in US prisons, higher rate of suicide amongst LGBTQ+ people, etc.) it could be argued that this is incidental — that female authors simply produce lower quality work than male authors — and any relation to political debate is merely coincidental.  But that kind of argument reduces a complex real-life scenario to theoretics by ignoring the bigger picture, and if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that reality is always more complicated than theory.

 

So what can we do about it? Pelayo believes the first step is recognizing our biases, then beginning to address them. Only then can we have an environment where women can learn from men without feeling the need to emulate them. We can do even more than nurture a culture of female recognition and empowerment: we can widen the pool of talented tech workers whose ideas make tangible positive changes in the world, as well. The most talented women in STEM, who have historically been shoved under the carpet despite making discoveries that spurned paradigm shifts in their fields (see: Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Lise Meitner, and countless more), will finally be the role models and inspiration for others that the top men in STEM have been for centuries.

 

That said, the conference was not just an educational activity, but a social one too. Although the knowledge we gleaned from this conference was fascinating, one of the biggest joys was meeting the other conference attendees. From fellow student journalists to aspiring tech workers, we met folks from around the Philippines with a shared interest in WitCon’s aim of celebrating women in tech to help achieve gender equality in STEM. But from all the people we met, a couple stood out to us: 10-year-old Mona and 13-year-old Elissa, two sisters from Assumption College with big interests in tech and even bigger ambitions. They recently competed in a robotics competition (team name: Awesome Blossoms, obviously) where they designed a robot that helps bring water to flood victims. When we asked these aspiring techies to tell us about themselves, Elissa responded that, “The easiest thing I can use to describe myself is that both sides of my brain are equal.” Her creative and analytical mind make it no wonder that what Elissa wants to do is become an Olympic swimmer, a singer, and a grandmother! Oh, and work with her sister (sibling goals). Mona has her own ambitions for later in life: “I’m going to have a bakery with holographic games like […] and a facial recognition — you just need to take a selfie — and then there’s a survey on what food you like so every day when you come to the bakery it recognizes your face and then it says what recommended food there is for you.” Both Mona and Elissa told us that when it comes to role models, their parents are who inspire them most. As for inspiring others, Elissa and Mona both have something to say to girls out there who want to pursue tech: “I would tell them that they can do anything they want,” said Elissa, “if they just try hard and never give up and focus more on their studies than anything else.” Meanwhile, Mona advised, “They need lots of perseverance and hard work in order to achieve their dreams but other than that they can do anything that they always wanted.” Their wise words reminded us that people don’t need to be older than us for us to admire them, because Mona and Elissa are truly inspiring women in technology.

 

All in all, WitCon was a fantastic experience that we won’t soon forget. It was as eye-opening as it was educational, and for every question answered by the speakers we had another to ask. As past contributors and personal fans of WiTech, our pride and excitement at seeing the work of the whole WiTech team come to fruition made the conference especially rewarding. Neither Patrick nor Nadia consider themselves women in tech, seeing as one isn’t a woman and the other doesn’t do tech. But WitCon did what science lessons hardly ever do for either of us: it made science and technology interesting. Maybe it was the additional focus on gender politics, maybe it was the fantastic selection of presenters, or maybe it was just our love for Audrey’s work on WiTech. Whatever the reasons, WitCon 2018 was brilliant. Although it’s too late for you to attend WitCon yourself this year, you can read interviews conducted with a wide array of women in technology at wi-tech.org, or check out WiTech’s Facebook page. Keep a look out for news on WitCon 2019!

 

Empowerment and education go hand in hand, a fact which WiTech has always embraced. WitCon was more than just a conference; it was a celebration, and we hope that its message will continue to resonate throughout the Manila tech community.

 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *