This is a guest post by Kate Heuisler, Chief of Party, USAID Development Innovations Cambodia

The digital divide is a buzz phrase that is easy to cite (especially around International Women’s Day!), but considerably harder to address with tangible plans. Quotas? Women-focused events? Round phones? As development practitioners look for the easy answers, we here at Development Innovations Cambodia are pushing back: there isn’t one. Rather than one-off events, we focus on the quality of programming, improving access to digital education, tools and skills, and showing young Cambodians that jobs and careers in tech are viable options for every interested Cambodian, not just young men.

What’s Happening Today

In Cambodia, the number of women engaged in the tech sector is growing, but major structural barriers still exist. The British Embassy in Phnom Penh is working to address one challenge with its recent STEM Careers of the Future, an easy to use handbook showcasing the top 20 careers in Cambodia in engineering, math, science, and technology. One of the big challenges for young Cambodians is that many parents feel more comfortable with career progression in accounting, business management, or law. This guidebook provides details about specific jobs from civil engineers to project managers, software programmers to network engineers, and shows where people can study for those careers in Cambodia, as well as potential monthly salaries.

Many young women at universities cautioned us they needed support well before choosing coursework if they were going to have the time to lobby their families; they told us it is important to start early and expose people to real options in secondary education. Events like the 2nd Annual Cambodia Science and Engineering Festival and the 1st Annual Inno-Tech Festival, to be held this March at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, will help improve access to math, science, and tech for more Cambodians, and link participants to some of these practical tools and job opportunities available today.

Finally, some young women in Cambodia face a stigma based on the traditional gender roles. While this is changing in Cambodia, it is important to recognize and support those who are interrupting the old ways by pushing past peer pressure to conform to traditional roles. Some of these role models include Sikieng Sok of the Technovation program, Channe Suy Lan, the Regional Lead at InSTEDD’s iLab for Southeast Asia, as well as Development Innovations’ own Sotheavy At, who leads our video advisory service and training courses for the civil society community.

Today, many young women in Cambodia are taking steps to address this gap when they take jobs with tech firms, work on technology-enabled projects, and engage with increasingly popular and accessible tech tools such as social media and video.

How DAI is Closing the Gap and Supporting Careers in Tech

DAI’s Development Innovations, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is addressing this divide on different levels, mainstreaming interventions to build a more inclusive approach as demand for tech services grows rapidly.

  1. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Teaching Materials for Grade 12: Under development with the Royal Government of Cambodia’s Ministry of Education (MoE) since 2013, nongovernmental organization Open Institute recently completed the textbook and class materials, focusing on educating students about jobs in the ICT sector, and emphasizing both the hard and soft skills needed to shape a career in ICT. The project supported the development and field testing of the materials, which are now being tested in select MoE schools. The Ministry plans to print the final textbook and deploy to all public schools with computers for the 2016-2017 school year.

  2. Technovation Global Challenge: This tech entrepreneurship program is a global effort to give girls ages 10-18 more practical tools to engage with tech.

IMG_9662.jpg Technovation mentor Rachana Nget and her team from middle school Liger Learning Center work on their application. Their mobile application was selected as one of three semi-finalists for the Asia, Oceania, Australia and Europe region

Program tools from Iridescent’s global program include user-focused design-thinking skills, coding and app development modules, business planning, and marketing skills. A key element of this program’s success is the Cambodian ownership—from the Technovation Ambassador for Cambodia Sikieng Sok, to middle and high schools that help support the teams, to private sector businesses offering sponsorship and financial support, to commitment from key participating schools to integrate the Technovation teachings into their curriculum. Finally, the program is founded on an in-built mentorship model—not just to check a box, but to connect young Cambodians to Cambodian women who have made it in this industry and want to drive more young people to the sector. Check out this video about the 2016 teams.

  1. Showcasing role models: Development Innovations works to connect people within the community through ICT4D Advisory Services, an in-house consulting and resource linkage service, and tell the stories of the many women already blazing trails through the tech sector. We host interactive Innovations In Action Learning Sessions, often highlighting women involved in the design of the program intervention or with building the tech intervention, and helping lower the barrier for entry for anyone who wants to learn more about engaging with ICT tools.

I remember growing up and looking at what women were doing around me: business leaders, artists, teachers, aid workers, accountants, designers. My mother was an artist, and taught art to pay the bills. My grandmother was also a teacher, as well as a community advocate and deep supporter of her local library and church. At university, my mentors pushed me to see things with new lenses, from social work theories to ethnographic teachings. Later in life, when I joined the development world, I was lucky enough to find female mentors (and males) in the jobs I wanted. I was immersed in practical lessons about how to engage, listen, and add value. At the time, I remember thinking that if I saw someone who looked like me doing something, it felt like a more tangible goal. Now the question is, how does that translate here, and what kinds of investments do we need to prioritize in coming years? Stay tuned to see what happens as the tech ecosystem in Cambodia grows, supported by the MoE’s deep commitment to STEM education, and builds an increasingly tech-savvy—and diverse—workforce.

Tell us about your women role models below in the comments, engage with us at @DAIGlobal on Twitter, or email us: [email protected]