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This Organisation Wants To Be Made Redundant

Because it means it has done what it set out to do.

The tech industry is riddled with gender inequality and unconscious bias. But this plucky 29-year-old is setting out to build a community for women in Asia to connect, learn and advance as programmers.

Elisha Tan is the founder of non-profit TechLadies. She established it in 2016 with one goal in mind: “for it to cease to exist”. It’s not something you hear from people who start organisations, but from the get-go, it is obvious there is nothing ordinary about her.

The tech industry is riddled with gender inequality and unconscious bias. But this plucky 29-year-old is setting out to build a community for women in Asia to connect, learn and advance as programmers.

“It will probably be at least a decade-long project, but by then, it will mean strong gender diversity, and women will have equal opportunity,” says Tan.

A cornerstone of the organisation is the TechLadies Bootcamp, a 12-week part-time accelerated learning course designed to help those with some basic programming background become professional programmers.

She is currently in the midst of planning the third edition, which will take place later this year from 29 July to 14 October – this despite the fact that she holds a full-time job in a tech MNC.

“It is tiring but I get a sense of fulfilment from doing it,” she says, admitting she takes her three meals at her desk to compensate.

Other initiatives organised by TechLadies include Tech Talks, where you get to learn a technical skill from other women, and Coding Weekend, a two-day hands-on workshop where you create and design your own web application.

In 2016 alone, TechLadies welcomed 629 participants to its events, workshops and bootcamps, taught 111 women how to code, and saw four accept jobs as junior developers.

“It has been rewarding to see how TechLadies has changed people’s lives,” shares Tan. “I knew early on that ours is not a unicorn initiative. It is what I call a ‘starfish’ start-up – what we do matters to that one person.”

She is alluding to the story about how a father and son were walking along the beach, when they chanced upon a starfish. The son picked it up and placed it back in the sea. When the father asked why he bothered helping it at all, the son replied, “Because it matters to that one starfish.”

Tan’s journey down this path started after she graduated from university. Determined to run a tech start-up, she couldn’t find a co-founder with the right technical skills and decided to learn coding herself.

As she immersed herself further into the community and industry, she learnt about the strong will to share, “I was very impressed by the spirit of the open source community, where people do good work and give it away for free. It was very inspiring.

“Coding allows you to create something for yourself and the people you care about. I could do it because I knew the right people. But women who didn’t became put off by technology. I felt it was a waste.”

When her start-up failed and she got retrenched five months into the full-time job she subsequently took up, she decided to take a step back and consider her options.

“My friends suggested I combine my passion in programming with teaching it to women,” she reveals, explaining how TechLadies Bootcamp came about.

“We later realised there are also women who want to learn how to code but not turn it into a career. So we evolved to offering tech talks and panel discussions.”

The question of the depth of the gender gap in tech problem inevitably comes up. Tan says Singapore is actually in a much better place than its Southeast Asian neighbours, because “women here are well taken care of”.

“There is a changing perception that technology is a man’s thing. I am optimistic because the government and organisations like mine are helping to change things.”

In reality, she points out that it is not technology that discriminates, but people. One part of what TechLadies does is also to enable men to be allies of women in the tech industry.

Tan recalls something that happened to her when she attended a tech space a few years ago, “I was hanging out and a guy I’d never met before came up to me and asked whose wife and girlfriend I was. It implied I didn’t have a space there because I’m a woman

“It’s not harassment but it’s upsetting. So how do you stop this? Rather than be the social police, we want to focus on building a community where women can come and meet others who support and appreciate their contribution to the tech industry.”

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