14 year-old Diyathma has no idea what coding even was, In fact, she thought the subject of ICT was only for boys. But taking part in a coding skill assessment alongside more than 200 of her peers, she was able to score the highest.
Tharuli, Onelli, and Thewni are three students, aged between 12-13 years, and geographically far from one another, and initially had no idea about coding. But collaborating online, they were able to create an innovative solution to detecting gas leaks using technology, even winning a special recognition award from TADHack, one of Sri Lanka’s biggest hackathons under the Teen category.
Thasuni has a similar story, aged in her early teens. After learning how to code through the programme she become a mentor of her own, organising mentoring sessions among her peers and even organising many fellow students to create an organised student body.
“We’ve had so many stories such as this, with young kids who’ve done wonderful things on their own, proving themselves to be very capable of taking responsibility for their own,” shared Poornima Meegammana, Director of Youth Development at the Shilpa Sayura Foundation. One of her initiatives, dubbed NextGen Girls in Technology has been recognised throughout the world, winning multiple awards, the most recent of which is Poornima making the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for Asia 2022.
A part of life
Technology has been an inseparable part of Poornima’s life, being the daughter of a software engineer and IT teacher. “In a way, I guess you could say I was born into tech,” she chuckled. “It was always something that was part of my life.”
This enthusiasm in tech led to her volunteering at the Shilpa Sayura Foundation while only 12 years of age. “I was one of those kids who wanted to try everything,” she recounted.
In the programme, she provided insight on various material produced by the foundation aimed at increasing the IT literacy rate of students, through Nenasalas which dotted the Sri Lankan rural regions.
Reviewing the material, she frequently gave feedback on the material being distributed among the peers on what needs to be improved.
Her work with Shilpa Sayura continued, far beyond those early days until the point where she is today. However, in between she volunteered in a number of projects, even as a project coordinator in some.
In one such project, Poornima observed the difference in demographics, with boys significantly outnumbering girls in terms of participation in such programmes. Curious to understand why, she began conducting research on the matter.
Dealing with the gap
“The lack of diversity in the field of IT, especially regarding gender, is something that the entire world is being affected by,” Poornima explained. In Sri Lanka, for example, girls make up a little over 50 per cent of the school population, but less than 8 per cent of them study ICT as a major subject.
Aside from the gender norms of IT being considered as a boy’s subject, “Teachers have had a big influence in this,” she noted. “In order for the kid to get 9As, students would often be discouraged by other teachers to take up ICT for their O Levels since it seems like a tough subject, leaving ICT teachers in a bit of a predicament according to the ICT teachers we have spoken with. Sadly, not all teachers are aware of the importance of ICT skills for future careers.”
Poornima noted that another major issue that prevented more students from entering the IT industry is a mismatch in skills that is a result of an out-dated curriculum followed by university students, which only adds to the disparity in gender within the IT sector of the country.
The NextGen Girls in Technology initiative aims to change that, increasing women’s participation in emerging technology careers by introducing a techno-extracurricular programme in schools to improve analytical, logical and creative thinking. Additionally they train university girls on-demand skills such as IoT, machine learning, cybersecurity, and design to bridge the skills mismatch and increase their employment opportunities.
Bridging the gap
NextGen Girls in Technology has made a massive impact in empowering young women by introducing them to the world of technology and ICT. Working offline, then online as a result of COVID-19, the team has reached young women from the city of Colombo, to almost every corner of the island, even reaching locations such as Mulankavil in the distant corner of Kilinochchi, Chavakachcheri in farthest North, Debarawawa in far South, partnering with both local and international groups.
“We’ve had a lot of wonderful young girls change their lives for the better because of NextGen, who have gone to be a positive influence for other girls as well, most of them volunteering in NextGen as well.”
In a crucial moment as this in Sri Lanka, it’s imperative that the country is able to provide greater opportunities for young women to enter the IT industry, especially given the fact that it is one of the biggest foreign revenue earners in the country today.
Poornima believes that if greater involvement of women in the IT industry is not achieved, Sri Lanka will be under-utilising more than half of its able workforce, who has unique perspectives and challenges to contribute to the development of software products and services, design and other fields of the IT industry.
30 Under 30
Her untiring work towards helping young women discover careers in IT which could literally be life changing for them and their posterity and immediate family has been recognised by many international organisations, now including the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list.
“We’ve gotten a lot of exposure and a lot of inquiries on people interested in joining our programme and volunteering with us as a result, which is a massive positive,” Poornima shared.
“But I couldn’t have done this without the amazing team who have worked tirelessly for this cause,” she added. “We are here today because of all of us taking the time to volunteer, sacrificing time outside of their employment and working hard because they believe in this cause.”
Poornima aims to continue the great work she has embarked on, and continue to encourage young women and enable them to pursue a career in IT, changing lives for the better.
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage