Digital tech in Pakistan: Advancing gender diversity and inclusion

February 27, 2024

Saira Faisal Syed, Country Lead Digital Transformation, Pakistan, GSMA Asia Pacific

The Kaghan Valley, KPK, Pakistan1

I proudly hail from the beautiful region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), where our Pashtun culture is rich with tradition and warmth. Yet, like many, I too am familiar with the stereotypes that have often been associated with Pashtun families, particularly when it comes to the roles and rules assigned to daughters. My journey in the world of technology started with a decision to break away from the norms of my time. In an era when few girls pursued careers in IT, I defied expectations and completed my university degree in Information Technology.

As my final year project, I automated a franchise, showcasing my determination and passion for innovation.

My career path underwent a significant shift necessitated by the absence of affordable daycare options. Transitioning from a role as a Mathematics and Statistics lecturer at a renowned public l university, I embarked on a diverse journey, managing web content for an Italian organization and sharing my knowledge as a Montessori teacher at a leading private school. These transitions underscored my adaptability and determination to embrace new challenges, ultimately enriching my professional and personal growth and also proving that dedication and technology can bridge any gap.

When I made the decision to transition into a conventional 9-5 job, there have been moments when people questioned whether I was the “corporate type.” To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but it didn’t deter me. I led various technology projects in collaboration with the mobile operators in Pakistan. From leading projects on call center solution implementation to various applications development, my journey continued, propelling me forward to become the Head of Projects in a prominent local company. In this role, I had the privilege of working on projects with industry giants such as Avaya, Cisco, Oracle, and more.

I was then fortunate enough to become known more broadly in the tech sector when I joined GSMA in Sept 2016 as a Project Manager. I was driven to create a nurturing and empowering community for young girls and women with technology as an enabler.

Pakistan’s progress towards a digital economy

Pakistan has made considerable progress in its digital transformation journey, with the rapid expansion of mobile broadband networks over the last decade. Today, nearly 80% of the adult population live in areas served by a mobile broadband (3G or 4G) network with rising smartphone adoption. In Pakistan, mobile has become a vital platform for citizens to interact with society and for government and businesses to deliver services. Pakistan’s mobile operators have expanded access to digital connectivity and rolled out digital solutions across key sectors such as agriculture, education, health and utilities. These have helped extend essential services to citizens across the country, including those in vulnerable groups, such as women, rural communities and people with disabilities.

Why we need greater diversity and inclusion in the industry

Just as the technology landscape in Pakistan is rapidly evolving, so is the call for greater gender diversity and inclusion in the industry. In Pakistan, recent initiatives and collaborations are making significant strides in this direction, breaking barriers and empowering women in technology.

The GSMA’s latest report on the Mobile Gender Gap2 sheds light on the current status of gender diversity in Pakistan’s tech landscape. While progress has been made, gender disparities persist, especially in technical roles and leadership positions. This report serves as a vital benchmark for understanding the challenges ahead.

Highlighting some groundbreaking efforts, in 2022, GSMA APAC set the stage for a meaningful change and partnered with Ministry of IT & Telecom and Kistpay to make a substantial leap forward by launching the Smartphone4All initiative3, with gender inclusivity at its core. The program aims to bridge the digital gender divide by ensuring women’s equal access to smartphones and digital resources. It’s a significant step toward empowering women through technology.

GSMA has been using advocacy as a pivotal tool in driving change. In Pakistan, tech leaders and organizations are actively advocating for gender inclusivity across all tech-related policies and regulations. These efforts aim to create an equitable tech ecosystem where women’s contributions are recognized and valued.

In 2023, GSMA APAC launched a call for papers4, further emphasizing the importance of gender diversity and inclusion in the tech sector. May 2023 marked a significant moment in Pakistan’s tech scene with the launch of the GSMA APAC Diversity for Tech Community5. This vibrant community brings together dynamic and talented women from various verticals within the tech industry. The community’s strength lies in its diversity, with women contributing to digital and financial inclusion for their fellow women and girls. In this case, a WhatsApp group became the catalyst for connecting women in tech in Pakistan. It’s a testament to the power of digital tools in fostering collaboration, support and empowerment.

The Diversity for Tech Community’s primary goal is to foster partnerships, highlight the work of every member, and collectively make a positive impact in encouraging more women to pursue careers in tech.

Women’s Leadership Awards

At the M360 APAC event in Seoul in Sept 2023, GSMA hosted the Women Leadership Awards to celebrate outstanding achievements in the tech industry. These awards recognize and honor the exceptional leadership and impact of women in shaping the future of technology.

The winners were:

  • Dr Archana Gulati, Former Civil Servant, Professor ofPractice, and Expert in Digital Policy and Law for her article on: “My Experience as a Civil Servant & Digitally Empowering Rural Women in India”;
  • Gulalai Khan, Faculty Internet Governance and Technology Policy, Founder Pakistan Professional Women Forum for her paper on: “ SMALL STEPS MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE – Meaningful work for a holistic digital future; and
  • Samina Rizwan, Founder and Partner, The CalmKaaj Network for her paper: ”My Story and Lessons Learned”.

A diverse and inclusive future

In Pakistan, gender diversity and inclusion in tech are not just buzzwords; they are becoming a reality. Initiatives like Smartphone4All, tireless advocacy for gender-inclusive policies, and the vibrant Diversity for Tech Community are paving the way for a future where women are equal contributors to the ever- evolving world of technology. The journey has begun, and the tech industry in Pakistan is committed to reaching new heights of inclusivity and empowerment.

The GSMA family nurtured my talents, encouraged my growth, and believed in my capabilities. Today, I am proud to be the Country Lead for GSMA in Pakistan, a position I’ve earned through dedication and resilience. My ultimate goal is to serve as a powerful inspiration for my daughters, showing them that with determination and vision, they can break through any barrier. Working with my amazing colleagues at the GSMA and other leaders in the industry, such as the GTWN, I hope to inspire others to shatter the confines of preconceived notions and embrace their full potential. Our roots may shape us, but they do not define us.

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Saira Faisal Syed is the Country Lead Digital Transformation for GSMA in Pakistan. She focuses on the promotion and execution of the GSMA’s global programmes and advocacy initiatives at the country level, as well as managing and delivering regional priorities defined by its members through GSMA governance bodies. Her focus is to advance the impact, growth, and sustainability of digital economies by collaboration between the mobile industry, policymakers, and ecosystem.

Saira is a telecommunication & project management executive with around 17 years of experience in Technology, Project Management, Regulatory, Policy & Digital Transformation. Before joining the GSMA, Saira was working as Head of Projects at Apollo Telecom leading various technology projects with the telecom industry. Saira has also worked with UNAIDS & Cure2Children Foundation Italy. Saira has a degree in Information Technology.