Girls in South Asia: “I want to be a software engineer”; “OMG! Why?”


UNICEF South Asia
06 December 2021

The State of Play

Maya (name changed), a 14-year-old girl, is shy at first, but when she opens up she is smart with a wicked sense of humour. As a young girl, she loved playing video games and dismantled toys and radios to construct her own machines. Today she aspires to become a software engineer and create games using coding and programming. 

Every time Maya meets her relatives, the first question they ask is “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. When she says software engineer, the reply is OMG! Why? This attitude is shared by her father, who casually replied to Maya’s interest in redesigning the Mario game with a female character by telling her that only boys pursue such careers.

Then Maya was introduced to an organisation teaching girls coding and computer programming. She enrolled in a two-month camp where she developed her first mobile phone game. This gave her the confidence to pursue her dream.

Girls and women use digital tools much less often than men and boys, and with less confidence. Furthermore, they are rarely the primary owners of a mobile device. In South Asia, there is a 23% gender gap in mobile ownership.[1] Even when they are able to use digital devices, they experience violence, with 52% of young women globally experiencing some form of digital harm[2] and 68% of online abuse of women and girls taking place on social media.[3] In South Asia, the root of digital exclusion is the inherent gender bias and socio-cultural norms that prevent girls from studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and considering careers in ICT.

[1] GSMA, The Mobile Gender Gap Report, Global System for Mobile Communications Association, 2020.
[2] World Wide Web Foundation, The Online Crisis Facing Women and Girls Threatens Global Progress on Gender Equality, World Wide Web Foundation, 2020.
[3] Ibid.

You Can't Be What You Can't See

We need to change the image of STEM as an inherently male domain and address the discriminatory norms and practices that prevent girls from dreaming of becoming pilots, engineers, and scientists. As Michelle Obama points out: “…we have to really think through whether we’re teaching to a system that is designed for the way the male mind works. Is the competition and the structure something that is turning off girls?”.[1] As well as changing the way we teach maths and science, we need to bolster girls to become leaders and role models in science and technology, so they can inspire other girls to see the possibility of becoming what they see.

As UNICEF celebrates 75 years, it is clear that change is already underway. To counter the negative effects of gender stereotyping, programmes like AdhaFULL TV in India are spreading positive attitudes about girls. The programme uses edutainment (TV, radio, social media and a smartphone game) to deal with issues facing adolescents such as pressure to marry early, obstacles to speaking up and influencing decisions about their future, school bullying, and gender-based violence. AdhaFULL helps people to recognize gender stereotyping and offers equitable alternatives.

Similarly, in Bhutan, the Pi-Top initiative supported by UNICEF has put girls at the centre of digital education. Pi-Top is on a mission to close the gender gap in technology and change the image of what a programmer looks like. By cracking the code, adolescent girls have started challenging the stereotype that coding and computer programming is a male domain – and are influencing others to code!

[1] D’Agostino, R., ‘Michelle Obama on Improving STEM Education for Girls’, Popular Mechanics, 13 November 2018.

When Connected, Stay Protected

It was the summer of 2010, and Aarya was sobbing in the bathroom. She had been receiving online abuse from the guy she was dating. She had met her abuser virtually and they clicked instantly. However, he was manipulative and soon started to abuse her mentally. He created fake online profiles under her name, in an attempt to tarnish her reputation. With limited laws in Nepal and no guidance from her parents, Aarya reached out to the school counsellor, but her request for help went unanswered.[1]

Such stories are common, not only in Nepal, but across the region. In Bangladesh, despair has been replaced by hope. Grameenphone, Telenor and UNICEF have joined forces in the Child Online Safety programme, empowering more than 20 million children and teachers. The programme is conducting virtual sessions through TV and radio, has supported the development of a YouTube campaign, and is increasing the awareness of parents and caregivers about online safety through Safe Clubs in participating school. To date, the programme has reached more than 400,000 students (aged 11–16 years) and over 70,000 teachers, parents, and guardians.

[1]  Note: This is based on a true incident; name has been changed to maintain confidentiality.


Aakansha looks excitedly at the new laptop her father bought her. She has had a rough time at college. Studying IT, most of her professors and classmates are male and the computer room resembles a boys’ club. Now, with her own laptop, she can code whenever and wherever she likes and can invite her mentor, Raksha, to her home to code with her. Raksha is an inspiration to Aakansha; she has developed her own app and, most importantly, has made her see that a career in tech is possible for women.

For a girl in a male-dominated sector, female mentors help us access technology and envision new career horizons. In the Maldives, Women in Tech (WIT) is giving hope and guidance to girls through womentors (women mentors). With the slogan ‘Empower, Inspire, Celebrate’, WIT collaborates with schools and companies to give 2,000 students a year an online tour of career options in ICT. It also conducts skills and career events such as ‘Django girls’ and a three-month course called ‘Girls to Code’. WIT provides a platform to increase the employability of women in tech.

UNICEF/UN0340019/Frank Dejongh

Grasping a better future

To break the gender digital divide, it is critical to empower girls with digital learning and skills and to change the minds of their family members, communities and businesses about the potential of girls to lead in the 21st century. This requires:

  • Ensuring that all schools and girls’ clubs provide opportunities to learn computer and ICT skills such as coding (Empowering Adolescent Girls | UNICEF South Asia).
  • More girls designing apps and their involvement in technology and innovation to address the specific needs of women and girls (
  • Ensuring that the Internet is safe from online violence and cyberbullying by putting measures in place and teaching boys and girls how to navigate the web safely.

“Trust in yourself and believe that your voice matters. Don't be afraid to put yourself forward. […] believe in yourself and give STEM a chance, because STEM is the future.” Ila, Kathmandu, Nepal