From The Straits Times    |

21st Century Girls

According to a 2020 study conducted by Boston Consulting Group and Infocomm Media Development Authority, 12% of CEO and board-level positions across all industries in Singapore are held by women, while only 29% of university graduates in tech are women.

There’s no denying that the gender gap exists in tech. But it begets the question, why does it exist? In the first place, there are fewer women entering the technology field, due to cultural and societal biases and norms — just think about how tech is often known as a ‘boys’ club’.

But for the women who do venture into tech, a good number end up leaving a few years into their careers due to a combination of factors, such as toxic work environments and the wage gap. And there you have it, a vicious cycle.

Since 2014, AI entrepreneur Dr Ayesha Khanna has been on a mission to change that. Spurred by an incident that she witnessed a couple of years before, she founded 21st Century Girls, a charity that helps to boost female representation in tech and empower more girls to enter the industry by teaching free coding, artificial intelligence, metaverse, web3 and robotics classes for girls in Singapore

Over a chat, Dr Khanna tells us about the nonprofit, International Women’s Day and more.

Tell us all about how 21st Century Girls came about.

I started off as a software engineer on Wall Street before moving into applied mathematics and machine learning where I started building large projects. Eventually, I started my own company where we worked with data and artificial intelligence.

But I always noticed that there weren’t enough women. Back in the day, when I was obtaining my Master’s degree, my classes consisted mostly of men. The same applied to banks and tech departments. Luckily, it’s changing now.

But even today, when I go to boards or advise CEOs, I notice there are generally very few women, although I think women can really add a lot of value.

That aside, there was an incident about a decade ago that remains fresh in my mind today. When I had just moved to Singapore, I attended a hackathon for kids at a community centre — I was teaching them about electronics and robotics. This little girl who must have been eight or nine came to my table and started putting things together. She had a real talent for it, as she understood how the sensors worked and how to make things move. I was really impressed, but shortly after, her mother pushed her aside and set her brother in front of me instead, saying that she wasn’t really interested or good at it and that I should teach him instead.

This incident shook me to the core, as I saw the unconscious bias present in our culture and world. And I realised all the bias I experienced as an adult was inculcated in children from young. But you’ll be glad to hear the story has a happy ending. A little while later, the girl’s grandmother actually brought her back, and I saw just how happy she was to be working with robotics again, albeit with her brother.

That was the day I decided to set up 21st Century Girls as a means to empower girls and women to feel that they are capable. If they put their minds to it, they can be creative and become highly skilled experts in all aspects of technology.

I think once girls see their skills, they gain confidence, and a world of opportunity and cultural support comes with it.

Ayesha Khanna

What are some programs that 21st Century Girls runs?

We started out with coding, conducting small coding classes for girls. These classes sometimes had boys too, whom we were always happy to have, as we advocate for equality and equal opportunity. The girls were really responding, so we partnered with Google to teach thousands of children. Thousands of girls were also taught under our Code in the Community project.

Credit: 21st Century Girls

Then, I decided to go bigger and teach more teenagers. I’ve always been a strong believer in polytechnic students, as I think they’re real go-getters and very smart and creative thinkers. Hence, I approached Ngee Ann Polytechnic and pitched an Empower: AI for Girls program. They were happy to work with me on this. Fast forward, it’s had seven successful runs and has even been sponsored by PayPal. There are even plans for this to be converted into a program available at all polytechnics, which is fantastic.

Before we commenced classes with the girls, we asked them how they felt about artificial intelligence. Many of them replied that they knew about it and how important it was going to be in the future, but they didn’t feel confident about it, and even doubted they would be any good at it. I couldn’t understand why, as there’s no reason for any girl to feel that way, so the fact that the girls thought they couldn’t participate was a big issue.

Even today, when I go to boards or advise CEOs, I notice there are generally very few women, although I think women can really add a lot of value.

Ayesha Khanna

After attending the weekly three-hour-long course for ten weeks, their mindsets had done a 180° change as they had a major boost in confidence. In fact, the story of one of our girls was shared in The Straits Times. Rachel Chung, who was part of the pioneer batch of participants, switched from finance and became a computer science major after attending Empower: AI for Girls. When she previously wanted to switch, her family disapproved as they didn’t believe she was capable of computer science, but changed their minds after seeing the work she did in our course. So I think once girls see their skills, they gain confidence, and a world of opportunity and cultural support comes with it.

Most recently, there was a lot of buzz about the metaverse and Web3, but it’s yet another area where people use jargon and many don’t understand what these things mean. So, I’m launching an interview series tailored for mid-career women. We interview women all over the world who will break down these concepts and apply them to their jobs so they can talk about it and move forward. Eventually, we aim to have courses as well.

Lastly, we’re going back to something we started nine years ago when 21st Century Girls was first launched — introduction to robotics. We’re going to teach 6 to 9-year-old kids the basics of computer science and robotics. We aim to take tech that is increasingly important and empower girls to feel that they can do it by introducing it to them, encouraging them, nourishing their skills and their confidence to go out, and as the young people say, slay in the 21st century.

Your work at 21st Century Girls is about closing the gender gap in tech, very much in line with the 2023 theme for International Women’s Day, which is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’!

Credit: UN Women

Exactly, gender equality! They’re telling you we’re looking for meritocratic access. It’s very important that we’re not asking for anything more than equal opportunity and equal access. We’re also not asking for any special preferences, but what we’re saying is we’re going to learn the skills as girls and women and we don’t want bias, unbiased opportunities, access, education and we want to advocate for more gender equality. 

People may say there are more girls in computer science classes than ever. Sure, but what happens to them as they climb the corporate ladder? Why is the ladder broken, where as they become more senior, they feel like they have to switch out of computer science, robotics or even STEM in general and move to other fields?

We have to stem this bleeding from happening. What is happening to these incredibly talented women? It could be anything from childcare to gender bias in leadership roles. What is making them lose their ambition, drive and confidence? We need to support them so that is very, very important because educated women are starting out in technology then moving away. And that’s why you can see I started with kids, went on to teenagers and young girls, and now I’m working on mid-career women.

The age of girls in tech goes from 4 to 100, and I want all of them to feel there’s no ageism in 21st Century Girls, one way or another. Everybody should learn and the opportunity is there, and so the whole life cycle of women in tech is very important to me.