International Women's Day: Growing Presence of Pakistani Women in Science and Technology

It is International Women's Day on March 8, and its theme is "DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality". It's a day to highlight Pakistani women's participation in science and technology. Nearly half a million Pakistani women are currently enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses at universities, accounting for nearly 46% of all STEM students in higher education institutions in the country. Several Pakistani women are leading the country's tech Startup ecosystem. Others occupy significant positions at world's top research labs, tech firms, universities and other science institutions. They are great role models who are inspiring young Pakistani women to pursue careers in science and technology. 

Clockwise From Top Left: Nergis Mavalvala, Maria Abrar, Maheen Adamson, Tasneem Zehra Husain, Sundas Khalid, Asifa Akhtar  

Pakistani Women in Science: 

Growing numbers of Pakistani working women are making a contribution to science and technology. Some of the highest profile names include Dr. Nargis Mavalvala and Dr. Asifa Akhtar. Mavalvala is the dean of Harvard University's School of Science and Akhtar is a vice president of the prestigious Max Planck Society in Germany. Dr. Maheen Adamson is a senior research scientist at Stanford School of Medicine. Tasneem Zahra Husain is a theoretical physicist in Cambridge Massachusetts known for her work on string theory. Hibah Rahmani is a rocket engineer at NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration).  Dr. Sania Nishtar is a former commissioner of the World Health Organization and she served as special assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan.  Dr. Syra Madad is an epidemiologist currently serving as the Senior Director of the System-wide Special Pathogens Program in New York City. 

Selected Women-Led Startups in Pakistan in 2022. Source: Katalyst Lab 

Pakistani Women in Technology: 

Maria Abrar is a data scientist at Reality Labs of Meta (Facebook), a research lab in Toronto, Canada. She has been ranked among Canada's top 25 women in artificial intelligence by ReWork, an Artificial Intelligence (Al) and deep learning content producer based in London, United Kingdom. 

Sundas Khalid is a data scientist at Alphabet (Google) in the United States. Forbes magazine has named her a "trailblazer" in its trailblazer series. 

Kalsoom Lakhani, a co-founder and general partner of i2i Ventures, is helping build Pakistani tech startups ecosystem. She and co-founder Misbah Naqvi are passionate advocates for women-led tech startups in the country.  So, too, is Jahan Ara, the head of Katalyst Lab accelerator. 

Several women-led startups have raised venture funds in Pakistan in 2022. These startups offer solutions in Fintech, Edtech, Healthtech, and Logistics, among others! These are led by Tania Aidrus of DBank, Maha Shahzad of Bus Caro, Vladimira Briestenska of Neem, Meenah Tariq of Metric, Saira Siddiqui of MedIQ, Aiman Bashir of Outclass, Anusha Shahid of OkayKer, and Fatimah Zafar of Remoty. 

Male-Female Ratio of University Students in Pakistan. Source: HEC

Pakistani Women Freelancers:

A 2020 global survey conducted by Payoneer, a global payments platform company based in Silicon Valley, showed that Pakistani women freelancers are earning $22 an hour, 10% more than the $20 an hour earned by men. While Pakistani male freelancers earnings are at par with global average, Pakistani female earnings are higher than the global average for freelancers. Digital gig economy is not only helping women earn more than men but it is also reducing barriers to women's labor force participation in the country. The survey also concludes that having a university degree does not help you earn more in the growing gig economy. The survey was conducted in 2015.

Freelancers Hourly Rate by Gender. Source: Payoneer

Male-Female Ratio of University Students in Pakistan: 

Nearly 46% of over 3 million students enrolled in Pakistani universities are female. The proportion of female enrollment has been rising over the last 5 years.  The ratio of female enrollees in STEM education is also about 46% of the student body. 

Over a million students, about a third of total 3 million students (1.4 million women, 1.6 million men) enrolled in Pakistani universities and degree colleges, are currently studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM Education), according to data released by the country's Higher Education Commission (HEC). Of these students, 415,008 are studying natural sciences and mathematics, 276,659 are in information and communication technologies (ICT), 178,260 are in health sciences and 166,457 are in engineering. Pakistan produced 157,102 STEM graduates last year, putting it among the world's top dozen or so countries. About 43,000 of these graduates are in information technology (IT). 

Student Enrollment By Field of Study at Pakistani Higher Education ...

Acceptance Rates in University Admissions: 

Acceptance rate in Pakistani universities and degree colleges was just 13.5% last year. Only 541,043 students were accepted from 4,085,185 students who applied. The country produced 471,306 university graduates in 2020-21. Of these, 157,102 were in STEM fields, including 43,000 graduates in information technology (IT). 

Pakistan Higher Education Admission and Graduation Statistics. Sour...

In absolute terms, Pakistan probably ranks among the top dozen or so nations producing university graduates in STEM and IT fields. However, the country lags significantly behind its lower middle income peers in terms of percentage of students enrolled in universities. Only 12% of young people in the 18-25 age group are currently enrolled in higher education institutions. This is about half of the 25% average for South Asia. The data from the Word Bank shows that the higher education enrollment rate was extremely low in Pakistan until 2000 when late President Musharraf decided to significantly boost investment in building universities and hire faculty to rapidly increase access to higher education in the country. 

Tertiary Education Enrollment Rates. Source: World Bank


As Pakistan struggles with multiple serious crises,  there is a growing presence of women in science and technology. These young women and men now studying in the nation's universities and colleges offer hope for its bright future. In fact, the vast majority of Pakistanis, particularly women, feel that they have better lives than their parents did, and they think their children will have even better lives than theirs, according to a Gallup International Poll of 64 countries conducted from August to October last year. The poll asked two questions: 1) Do you feel your life is better, worse or roughly similar to that  of your parents? and 2) Do you think your children will have a better, worse or roughly the same life as you? The answers to these questions reveal that Pakistanis are among the top 5 most positive nations among 64 countries polled by Gallup International. Anecdotal evidence in terms of packed shopping malls and restaurants in Pakistan's major cities confirms it. Such positivity augurs well for Pakistan's prospects of successfully dealing with the current crises. It will drive the nation's recovery. 

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Comment by Riaz Haq on April 22, 2023 at 7:38pm

DigitAll: What happens when women of Pakistan get access to digital and tech tools? A lot!
by Javeria Masood – Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Pakistan

4. Solutions are as good a connector as the communal problem
Take the example of healthcare. During the pandemic, we saw the case of herd immunity. Women in Dera Ghazi Khan are using this approach for other health concerns by self-help. Mujahida Perveen from UC Pega got diagnosed with Thyroid disease. She has found information on YouTube to manage her concerns and is educating others to take their symptoms seriously, get tested and adopt healthy choices.

‘I searched on YouTube about what a thyroid patient should do. I followed the recommended food intake and exercises and see a huge improvement.’

5. Local access does not limit global opportunities
Including women in the workforce has a strategic advantage at both a community and country scale. This perpetuates the flow of money and opportunities. Ayesha Abushakoor from Zawar Wala is a Quran teacher who has students within and outside the country and uses Digital Wallets to receive her fees.

‘My brother informed me that I can use the internet to provide Quran tuition to children. Now I have students here as well as in Dubai and Saudi Arabia.’

6. Future is supportive men
Ramla’s fathers an outlier in the community. He has four daughters whom he plans on educating, so they can get jobs and improve their lives. Unlike other men in the neighbourhood, he believes in equality and does not conform his daughters to discriminatory societal standards. Women in his family have access to mobile phones and the internet for recreation and education. His eldest daughter, Ramla, is in grade four and is passionate about studying.

‘My father has promised me that he will support me in getting a Master’s degree. During Covid-19, I took pictures of the syllabus made by my teacher and studied it on my father’s phone. He also makes the best biryani (Pakistan’s favourite rice dish)!’

What happens when the society stops putting barriers on women and provides them with access to technology and digital tools? They thrive.

They educate, empower, and enable themselves to empower others. All the women, who shared their stories, had one thing in common. They all thought of financial empowerment as a mechanism to upscale not just themselves, and their immediate families but the whole community. Their thinking and conversations are about long-term societal change.

Innovation and technology do not have a gender and it should not be gender biased in availability. We need to develop infrastructure, policies, and a climate toward an equitable digital future for all.

Comment by Riaz Haq on April 22, 2023 at 8:26pm

Navigating the ecosystem: stories of Pakistani women in tech
APRIL 26, 2022

Since 2019, UNDP Pakistan has been partnering with CIRCLE to support the annual She-Loves-Tech competition in Pakistan. She-Loves-Tech is the world’s largest start-up competition for women and technology. The platform seeks out and accelerates the best entrepreneurs and technology and provides them with an ecosystem of support--through funding and a network of global community. Over the last three years, UNDP has supported over 130 women-led tech-startups.

Last year we reached out to few of these entrepreneurs. We wanted to hear their stories, to learn how their start-ups were coping or improvising in the pandemic, and to gather insights what women in tech need in Pakistan. To this end, we travelled and met women entrepreneurs in Islamabad, Lahore, Faisalabad, Karachi, and Quetta. Here’s what we learned.

Being an entrepreneur is a lonely journey

A common feeling shared by all women entrepreneurs was that being an entrepreneur is a lonely journey. Fortunately, spaces like She-Loves-Tech provide women in tech an ecosystem of support, where they meet similar start-ups, have access to mentors, refine their ideas, develop a business case, and address gaps in their knowledge. The ecosystem support increases confidence levels of the entrepreneurs and helps them position their start-up with the relevant audience.

“The ecosystem support was a stepping-stone in becoming confident, and learning how to phrase and share my pitch,” shared Areeba Zehra from Live Natural.
Areeba also emphasized the importance of long-term mentorship, especially with mentors who are willing to work on the idea into the expansion phase. Her start-up Live Natural is an e-commerce marketplace for anyone looking for all natural and organic products.

Policy support can make the ecosystem conducive

Waste is an issue that is ignored by everyone. Trash It is a social enterprise that is working on minimizing waste, recycling organic waste in Karachi. Since 2019 they have made compost from 300,000 kgs of organic waste. Close to 500 Kgs of waste is composted at their facility daily.

Anusha Fatima, who leads the start-up shares that they are only working in their capacity to manage waste, and there need to be more enterprises out there working on this issue. For that to happen, the waste management ecosystem needs a proper infrastructure where waste is collected in segregated form. A policy shift can also lead to a behavior shift and encourage citizens to participate and segregate waste at the source.

Social-enterprises pivoted their approach in COVID-19

As the pandemic started, many social enterprises digitized their work and shifted operations on the Cloud. But for few, the pandemic presented an opportunity to start new enterprises. Zartaj Ahmed, who originally participated in She-Loves-Tech from PSSEC’s platform, segued it into another start-up QriosityNet.

“Ed-tech was not the focus of investors. It had to make business sense. And the pandemic made it easy,” said Zartaj
During the pandemic, their team surveyed and learnt two things—education was being impacted, especially for students who were planning to start their undergraduate degree, and that GENZ is comfortable with technology. The new start-up is focusing on STEM education with a blended learning model and a self-paced approach.

Comment by Riaz Haq on April 22, 2023 at 8:27pm

Navigating the ecosystem: stories of Pakistani women in tech
APRIL 26, 2022

Believe in your ideas

It was inspiring that all the women entrepreneur we met exuberated passion and perseverance.

“Let the world tell you that you can’t do it. If you feel it’s right, you might be the first one doing it”, said Aruj Khaliq.
One start-up lead Eesha tur Razia Babar highlighted that women entrepreneur have great ideas, but they often don’t participate in tech conferences and competitions.

“You need to put your ideas out there, and take part in conferences and events, to get that exposure,” urged Eesha.
Eesha’s start-up Shama-e-Zindagi (literally means light of life) is working on automating the process of monitoring patients in Intensive Care Units and Critical Care Units of government hospitals to reduce burden on nurses and other medical staff. Their prototype is at a testing stage.

“If you’re starting a business, it will take time and you must be strong. You’re going to face a lot of challenges. People will stay it can’t be done. If you believe in your idea, you’ll learn and grow. Take your failure as a learning journey”, Areeba advised aspiring women entrepreneurs.

Comment by Riaz Haq on May 30, 2023 at 8:26am

Google and Pakistan collaborate to drive IT education, 45,000 scholarships announced - Global Village Space

Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Information Technology and Telecommunication, Syed Aminul Haq, announced a groundbreaking agreement with Google during the Startups for Industries and IT Exports conference held at the Korangi Association of Trade and Industry (KATI). The agreement entails 45,000 scholarships to be provided by Google, with the aim of increasing the number to 450,000 in the following year. Notably, at least 40 percent of these scholarships will be reserved for women. This initiative marks a significant step forward in promoting IT education and fostering the growth of Pakistan’s digital industry.

Expanding Educational Opportunities
The collaboration between Pakistan and Google sets out to address the pressing need for skilled IT professionals in the country. The allocation of 45,000 scholarships signifies a remarkable increase from the previous year’s 15,000 scholarships. By targeting women, the government aims to bridge the gender gap in the tech industry, empowering more female individuals to pursue careers in IT. This initiative recognizes the importance of diversity and inclusion in driving innovation and technological advancements.

Empowering the IT Industry
Minister Aminul Haq emphasised the government’s commitment to the growth of the IT sector by announcing the construction of a dedicated building at NED University, with an investment of $1.6 million. The facility will serve as a hub for gaming and animation, nurturing local talent and further propelling the industry forward. These efforts align with the government’s vision of promoting startups, gaming, and animation within the country, leading to increased employment opportunities and economic growth.

Supporting Startups and Innovation
The conference brought together industry experts, entrepreneurs, and policymakers to discuss the importance of startups and innovation in the IT sector. Senator Abdul Haseeb Khan highlighted the crucial role that research and development play in driving industry growth. He also emphasised that startups today no longer require massive investments, thanks to the conducive environment and government support. With the increase in the number of incubation centres from five to eight in just three years, Pakistan is nurturing a vibrant ecosystem for startups to thrive.

Boosting IT Exports
Deputy Patron of KATI, Zubair Chhaya, lauded the efforts of Minister Aminul Haq, acknowledging the significant growth in Pakistan’s IT exports. From a modest $1 billion in exports, the sector has witnessed a remarkable surge to $2.6 billion at the end of the last financial year. This growth places Pakistan on a promising trajectory, showcasing its potential to compete with neighbouring countries. To further bolster the IT industry, Nighat Awan, the Senior Vice President of KATI, called for the abolishment of duties on machinery and IT-related products, fostering an environment conducive to expansion and innovation.

Comment by Riaz Haq on May 30, 2023 at 5:25pm

Expanding FemTech to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights

Ayesha Amin is a tech and gender activist and social entrepreneur from Pakistan. She is the founder of the youth- and women-led organization Baithak—Challenging Taboos, a Generation Equality Commitment Maker working to expand access to information on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Having experienced first-hand the discriminatory structure of the tech world, Ayesha highlights the urgency of involving young people—and young women in particular—in the decision-making processes that will impact their future: "There is no alternative," she believes.

The taboo around sexual and reproductive health and rights has historically kept many women in the dark about their own bodies. This effectively deprives them of bodily autonomy: “When women don't have access to information,” Ayesha says, “they are not able to make informed decisions about their bodies.” On top of the stigma, mobility restrictions and lack of resources prevent many from accessing crucial health services.

FemTech—a term for tech designed to support women’s health—can help break down existing barriers to information and care. And yet it tends to exclude those who most need it: “Most of the FemTech applications that exist right now benefit women who are from socially and economically privileged groups,” Ayesha explains. For women from rural communities, women who aren’t digitally literate or those without sufficient income to pay for subscription-based apps, even these alternative forms of healthcare remain out of reach.

As we fight to close the gender gap in digital access, “we are leaving women and girls in marginalized communities far, far back,” Ayesha emphasizes. This “gap within the gap” means marginalized women are excluded even from tech touted as accessible. “There's a huge need for investments in solutions that can localize technology and that can make tech models inclusive for girls and women who are in these marginalized communities,” she says.

Tech Support
Enter Baithak’s latest project, Gul, an AI-powered voice assistant that will use WhatsApp to help educate young people on reproductive health issues in local languages. The team gave their voice assistant a common gender-neutral name, with the idea that people “can a have a friend in terms of this voice assistant who they can ask for this information,” says Ayesha.

Gul is part of Baithak’s push to expand its impact through technology. The organization began with in-person sessions held in communities across the region: “The idea was to create safe spaces for women to come together and discuss and learn about issues related to their sexual and reproductive health,” Ayesha explains. But there were many communities they still could not reach.

“We knew that our access was very limited,” she says. “We could not be everywhere. So we wanted to build a system through which women and girls in marginalized communities could get access to quality information very privately.”

The need for virtual resources was underscored by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Women in the various communities start reaching out to us very actively on Whatsapp because we were not able to go there physically,” Ayesha says. The project’s urgency was further emphasized last year, during the floods that devastated large parts of Pakistan.

These kinds of crises aren’t going away. But tech-based solutions can help mitigate the worst of their fallout. “Going forward, the idea is to use this voice assistant for women in climate emergencies,” says Ayesha, “where access to quality information and the ability to make informed decisions around reproductive health become very difficult.”

Comment by Riaz Haq on June 27, 2023 at 1:02pm

Carving a path for Pakistani children to pursue science careers
Lalah Rukh talks about the joys — and challenges — of nurturing young learners’ passion for science subjects.

Lalah Rukh is a science communicator and founder of Science Fuse, a non-governmental organization in Lahore, Pakistan, that is working to promote access to high-quality education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Launched in 2016, Science Fuse designs and delivers informal educational workshops, training and resources that build children’s scientific literacy and passion for STEM. It uses a sliding-cost model to engage with schools that serve children from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, including using donations to take free scientific demonstrations to the poorest communities. Rukh speaks about her motivations for founding Science Fuse.

When did you first get interested in science and science engagement?
My interest in science began when I was 12, after reading an article about personalized medicine in a children’s magazine published by a leading newspaper in Pakistan. I was fascinated by this idea, and I cut out the article and pasted it by my bedside so that I could see it every morning when I woke up.

In 2003, I moved back to Norway, where I was born, and studied molecular biology and biotechnology at university. But I realized that I didn’t enjoy doing science in the laboratory as much as I enjoyed engaging people with science. So, I joined Forskerfabrikken, a non-profit organization based in Oslo that encourages children to engage with science. We organized hands-on science programmes for schoolchildren. I worked there for five years as a science communicator, and I learnt about science engagement and social entrepreneurship. I discovered the core features that make for great small-scale school exhibits, and I saw how the organization established revenue streams and structures to expand its team and expertise across Norway. And I realized that science communication is where my passion truly lies.

Where did the idea of Science Fuse come from?
In summer 2013, when I was in Pakistan to get married, I visited a small charity-run school for children living in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Karachi. I did a 3-hour science workshop for the children with fun demonstrations — from creating giant bubbles to making beads that change colour under sunlight, and chemical reactions that make water ‘pop’. There were big smiles on the children’s faces and the experiments sparked their curiosity. It felt more meaningful for me to do this kind of work in Pakistan. Since 2016, Science Fuse has reached more than 45,000 children, trained 650 teachers and nurtured a community of more than 200 science communicators. We have worked closely with about 250 schools and partner organizations to deliver world-class science education across the country.

Why is it important to boost STEM education in Pakistan?
In Pakistan, 44% of children are out of school, one of the highest percentages in the world — and the majority of those who do go to school attend low-income private or government schools. Many low-income families don’t have access to good-quality STEM education.

This is a social-justice issue. STEM skills are important for any job, and children need them to excel. Science allows us to ask questions about life and the Universe. But in Pakistan, many people, especially children, and girls in particular, are discouraged from asking questions at home and in schools because of cultural and religious beliefs. It’s important that we use STEM education to empower children.


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