Interview: Audrey Pe on sexism in technology and why she started WiTech
Youth for Positive Change talked to Audrey Pe about her organisation WiTech, which aims to empower youth to break gender roles using technology.
To start off with, can you tell us a little bit about your organization WiTech and why you started it?
WiTech (Women in Technology) is a nonprofit organization based in the Philippines that aims to educate, inspire, and empower youth to break gender barriers and use tech to make a difference in society. We operate out of the Philippines, US, and UK and there are over 70 young people involved.
In 2018, we hosted the first women in tech conference for, and by, students in the Philippines, in partnership with Accenture Philippines. Besides our annual women in tech conference, we also bring introductory CS, careers in STEM, and digital literacy workshops to marginalized communities in the Philippines with little-to-no access to tech. Our events have impacted 1,100+ youth and taught 100+ students to code for the first time.
I founded WiTech when I was a 15-year-old high school sophomore. I didn’t accept the notion, despite what those around me would say, that tech was a ‘boy’s club’. I didn’t want to have to wait until I finished school and had worked a couple of years to make an impact on my community. I especially didn’t want to wait for the field of tech to change itself, and sought to make it as inclusive as possible given the resources I had in high school. Overall, WiTech and my personal mission have become intertwined: to work towards a future where all youth (especially in developing countries like the Philippines) can enter tech and use it for social good, regardless of their gender or socioeconomic status.
What more do you think could be done to encourage girls’ participation in tech and stem subjects?
In the Philippines, the main barriers that I see preventing girls from entering STEM/tech as a whole are cultural norms and lack of tech integrated into the national curriculum.
Cultural norms include the notion that boys should go into STEM and girls should go into the humanities. Personally, I experienced a teacher telling me that she “couldn’t imagine me in tech” and that I seemed to “fit better in the humanities”, after I had expressed an interest in studying STEM in college. That experience happened in the ninth grade, a couple of months before I started WiTech. Intentional (and unintentional) sexist remarks that reinforce gender roles can discourage a lot of girls from even expressing an interest in STEM – which has a major impact on them going into the field.
Lack of tech in Philippine curriculum also hinders young girls from gaining exposure to potential careers in tech or simply getting their interest in STEM sparked. Because schools are not required to teach CS, many boys pursue it separately either through clubs or other means outside the classroom. By the time they enter CS classes in college, they likely already have the experience that many girls lack.
Calling out the kind of sexist remarks and microaggressions that help to perpetuate gender norms can help to create room for conversations about why STEM is so male-dominated and how we can begin to change that. Additionally, having a national CS curriculum would go a long way in terms of ensuring that all young people, regardless of gender, get some sort of exposure to tech, so that they at least have the potential to explore it as a future career path. I could honestly write a whole essay based on this question, because there are so many things that could be done to help encourage girls to pursue a career in STEM.
What do you believe are the main benefits of having diverse representation in science?
When I think of science, the first thing that comes to mind is problem-solving. Because it is all about that, isn’t it? Science as a whole is rooted in the idea of using the knowledge in your environment to answer a question and/or create a solution. So when we frame science in that way, especially in thinking about how to use science to solve problems in our society, we need to have a diverse set of perspectives in solving those issues. That means including and mobilising not just the male, 50% of our population. Diverse representation in STEM means including all genders and socioeconomic strands in conversations about solutions that can benefit all genders and socioeconomic strands. It means looking at a problem from multiple perspectives and that can only be achieved by consciously striving for inclusivity and representation in STEM.
Who or what inspires you in life?
I’m inspired by the feminists, changemakers, and leaders that have broken barriers for people today. Not so long ago, women in the Philippines weren’t allowed to vote and people couldn’t communicate in a matter of seconds with those living on the other side of the world. Because of those that questioned the status quo and used tech to solve societal problems, I’m hopeful that we can overcome many of the issues that confront us today. The idea that change can be brought about through the efforts of people inspires me every day.
Are there any projects that WiTech is working on at the moment?
Because of the coronavirus, we’ve had to cancel all of our in-person events, but we are still publishing content on our WiTech blog (wi-tech.org/blog)! We also will be opening our core team applications this coming July/August, so make sure to follow us @witechorg to keep updated. Additionally, our chapter expansion program (which equips members with resources to hold online and offline events) is open! If you’re interested, please email email@example.com we’ll be in touch.
Finally, what are three pieces of advice you’d give to young activists looking to create change within their communities?
First, think about the problems in your community that keep you up at night. Second, utilise social media to spread your advocacy and inform others how they can get involved. And, finally, don’t be afraid to message possible mentors and schedule calls via LinkedIn, Instagram, email, etc!
BIOGRAPHY: Audrey Pe (@audreyisabelpe) is the Founder and Executive Director of @witechorg (Women in Technology), a nonprofit organisation that aims to educate, inspire, and empower youth to make a difference and break gender barriers using technology. Through WiTech, she has been working on projects at the intersection of technology and education since she founded the organisation at age fifteen. She is now eighteen and on a gap year before heading to Stanford University in 2020 where she plans to major in Science, Technology, and Society. Her work with WiTech has garnered her recognition as a 2019 Global Teen Leader, 2018 Zonta Young Women in Public Affairs District awardee, 2019 Zonta Women in Technology Asia-Pacific District Scholar, Opportunity Desk 30 Under 30 Changemaker, and 2019 Women in Tech Global Aspiring Teen Award Finalist. She has also been featured in local and international publications like Esquire and the Philippine STAR.