Despite the growth of Cambodia’s tech industry, few women have joined the field. Longtime Cambodian tech observer Sok Sikieng says that although more women have joined the profession in recent years, there remain significant factors hindering women from reaching their tech potential.
Sikieng, a tech ambassador and lecturer of information technology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, told the Hello VOA (Khmer) radio program last week that the increase in women working in the technology sector has not encouraged more young women to study tech-related subjects at universities.
“In the last few years, there was a noticeably higher number of Cambodian women tech workers, who have started an association. They total around 70, 80 people, and help each other to bring in more women into the field. And yet, today, we don’t see a marked increase in female students in tech.”
Among 1,500 students who chose information and communications technology (ICT) at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in 2014, less than 10%, or just 105, were female, says Sikieng. The expert, who has worked in the field for almost ten years, lays the blame on a lack of self-confidence, family and social stereotyping, and lack of role models.
Cambodia has recently pivoted to the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) to better position the country’s workforce for an economy of the future, based on technology.
Despite making up half of the student population, only 14% of students in information technology in 2010 were female. Most of these women chose the subject without the clear end goal of working in the sector.
Sikieng herself admitted she chose the subject by chance rather than through a long-held passion. She says the main reason for the lack of enthusiasm is that many female students do not believe they can succeed in the subject.
“If they get [good marks] in class, our female students don’t attribute it to themselves, but rather to luck. This shows that most Cambodian women do not believe in their personal ability to succeed in ITC study.”
Another factor, says Sikieng, is discrimination by family and society, which sees the tech sector as primarily the domain of men. She tells Hello VOA that, in her case, encouragement from her parents and brothers bucked this apparent trend.
Another factor, she says, is the lack of Cambodian role models who can defy the stereotypes.
“[Men] don’t believe in us because there are not many Cambodian role models. It is a factor that makes them not believe that we can do it, too. But now I have seen more Cambodian women in tech, so I hope that this mindset will change soon.”
This workplace stereotype is not unique to Cambodia’s fledging tech sector, and can be challenging even in well-established technology communities in developed countries. In the United States, research by the American Association of University Women found that the number of women working in computing fell from 35% in 1990 to just 26% in 2013, while women constitute only 12% of all engineers. This decline came despite the fact that women have become more prominent in other fields, such as medicine, law, and business.
Sikieng says that she has not noticed similar drop in Cambodia as discrimination seems to occur more in the classroom than at the workplace.
Khiev Sokmesa, a senior software developer at Phnom Penh-based InSTEDD iLab, has worked in the Cambodian tech industry for many years. He agrees that the increase in Cambodian women working in the technology sector has helped change the attitudes of their male colleagues.
“Information technology work is not exclusive to men,” Sokmesa tells VOA Khmer. “It is brain work, so women can also actively participate. And sometimes, they do a better job because of their attentiveness and creativity. So I think their participation is a positive contribution to society.”
Sikieng says that Cambodian women such as herself, who can overcome those societal challenges, are rewarded with numerous opportunities in a currently uncompetitive field. More importantly, those women will become role models and encourage female students to become the tech pioneers of the future.