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We need to go beyond the talk and take concrete steps to tackle gender awareness, according to Shwetal Shah, a digital entrepreneur nominated by Forbes magazine for its 30 under 30 Asia list, and by the European Commission for its European Development Days Young Leaders Programme.
The India-born education technology specialist works for Erase All Kittens, a London-based technology company developing a game which helps to teach coding to boys and girls.
She told SciDev.Net during the European Development Days (EDD) conference in Brussels on June 5-6 that governments should help to normalise women working in tech by promoting role models of contemporary working female scientists, not those who lived over a hundred years ago.
The EDD conference is focused on the role of women — do you think we are moving in the right direction on gender in technology and science?
I think we are all still just talking about things; we are talking about the problems that everyone is already aware of. Very little is being done to actually create concrete action steps to tackle this issue. For example, in the UK I am always a female that works in tech — I’m always made aware of my gender in the West. In India, I was never made aware of my gender. So it is these little things which may not seem like much, but add to the bigger picture which has led to a lot of issues. And I think just taking concrete small steps, use digital to talk about digital, showcase women role models, that’s very important.
Our school textbooks still talk about Einstein and Newton and Marie Curie, who lived a century ago. We never talk about current woman scientists, and maybe governments could identify who is working in labs, what women are doing, and just hand out small booklets and showcase them.
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What are you doing at the moment, and how does it impact on this issue?
I work at an education technology company called Erase All Kittens and we have created a platform game which teaches programming to young kids. We have made it in a way that appeals to girls as well, starting at the age of eight. We carried out research over 12 months, so we interviewed thousands of school students between the ages of eight to 13, and we also analysed the most popular books, movies and cartoons that these kids subscribe to. The result of this research was that most girls between the ages of nine to 12 believe that coding is either too difficult or more for boys.
“Our school textbooks still talk about Einstein and Newton and Marie Curie, who lived a century ago”
Shwetal Shah, EDD Young Leader
We have a gender-neutral element in the game which is kittens and they [the players] need to save kittens in this fantasy internet universe. It’s inspired by Mario [Super Mario Brothers]. As they play the game. So in the controlled game environment they code, and then they move across different levels [of difficulty] saving kittens from an evil corporation known as Erase All Kittens.
You have been selected for the Young Leader programme at EDD, and you are also on the Forbes ‘30 under 30’ list of influential young people in Asia. What motivates you?
I grew up in India. When I was 15 I loved science but I was discouraged from pursuing science mainly because of the lack of awareness from my schoolteachers’ and parents’ side in terms of what a career in science entails. They thought it might be too difficult for me. And then I started working in tech consulting. So I was the youngest and only female and it was very intimidating and isolating as an environment.
In order to encourage more girls and to make the whole tech industry feel less sexist, I started organising initiatives where I tackled the issue of role model representation. And then [I began] working at Erase All Kittens where we are starting from empowering young girls at the age of eight, and showing them that coding is not just for boys and it is not difficult and that they can also do it.
How can this be applied to the gender issue in India?
I am based in London and one of the reasons I moved to the UK was that I could use the resources that I have to give back to society. So I want to build a school in India one day that gives free education to under-served communities. I don’t have plans to move back physically to India, but I am coordinating with a lot of organisations where we can share with them our game so they can use this game to introduce [coding] to kids in their classroom, in their communities. [I am] also working on a lot of educational products for India. So that’s what I want to do: use the UK resources I have and then take them back to India.
Where do you see yourself in 10 or 20 years’ time?
With the way that technology is changing, the world is changing, a lot kids of today’s generation will be employed in jobs that have yet to be created — and the same goes for me. I can’t see myself working in one job, in one industry for the next 20 years. That’s career insight for my generation. I have already worked in so many different companies, so many different organisations, so I see myself constantly moving across different industries and companies, but always with the underlying theme of ‘does that company have a social purpose and what impact am I creating in this world?’. Wherever I go, ten, 20 years down the line, as much impact as I can create in this world — that is where I am going to go.