Iffat Rose Gill | The Code To Change
When it comes to ED&I in the tech space, companies need to start putting their money where their mouth is.
For too long, the burden of fixing equality in the workspace has been on the underrepresented folk that need support, when the responsibility lies with the companies and brands that claim they want to be part of the solution, rather the problem.
Enter 'The Code To Change', a diversity and inclusion organisation set up to empower, mentor and support women looking to get into the tech space - either at the beginning of their career or after a breakaway or looking for a career change. The Code to Change founder and experienced international NGO leader-activist Iffat Rose Gill shares her story about how this amazing organisation came about and what we can do, right now, to diversify this industry once and for all.
THANKS SO MUCH FOR YOUR TIME TODAY. WE’RE REALLY INTERESTED TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE CODE TO CHANGE. COULD YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT IT AND WHAT INSPIRED YOU?
Sure! First of all, thank you for inviting me. So, The Code to Change is a diversity and inclusion organisation. We started off as a boot camp in 2015 because of a problem that I faced myself, as a woman of colour, who moved to a different country and was looking for economic opportunities. Whilst I was at university, I was in Pakistan and a young woman asked about me going to university as she was not even allowed primary education. So, for her, coming across someone who was at university was really unusual. I stood there with this privilege and realisation that I got this opportunity and she, who I considered smarter than me, wasn’t offered the same opportunity. That’s what triggered my interest to work for economic empowerment and inclusion for women through education.
There are so many challenges when faced with accessing job opportunities in a new place when you must build your connections from scratch. What I had though was my digital skills: I knew how to build a digital strategy and create a meaningful online presence. I built on that skill and started consulting local, non-profit, organisations. I noticed then that a lot of women around me were in similar positions. And this wasn’t limited to women of colour, like me, but also local women who were looking to step back into work after a break for various reasons. It was a huge challenge for them because the technological landscape had drastically changed so they had to become “eligible” again by upgrading their skills.
Now let’s be honest, if you are a guy, it’s easier to put yourself out there and get new connections and knowledge. In this industry, because of how women are judged so easily and harshly, we have become more shy and reluctant to ask for help. This is where the mentoring program that we had designed helped re-establish their confidence. They would go through the digital boot camp for a week where they would build websites; connect with mentors (for up to 6 months); learn and work together and become attractive to recruiters. Before that, they didn’t even get the chance to go to interviews.
Fast forward to today, we’re operating in 8 different countries both in Europe and Asia with a focus on delivering customised bespoke boot camps. We understand where these candidates are currently and then tailor the boot camp to their needs. But it isn’t just about upskilling. We need to look at the ecosystem, the roots of the problem. We find it very important to build the capacity of the ecosystem stakeholders as well. Moreover, we’ve taken the lessons we’ve learnt and shared them to platforms such as the UN WSIS, government, and other business conferences’ to show why and how we need to tackle these problems.
HOW CAN SOMEONE GET DIRECTLY INVOLVED WITH WHAT YOU ARE DOING?
There are so many ways that they can get involved with The Code to Change from being a volunteer mentor or donating, or even being part of the team. We’re looking for volunteers with a knack for problem-solving. They have to love a challenge where they can break problems down into small bite-size chunks. We’re quite versatile with the groups that we’re working with from refugees and migrant groups who speak different languages; to native tribes in the US; to female entrepreneurs from Pakistan. They all have their own unique set of challenges which require strategic insight to solve them.
So people can write to us and share what they can contribute. We are always looking for mentors – whether Subject Matter Experts or Trainers or Mentors. People can also nominate us for things too!
NICE. THERE’S SO MUCH THAT YOU DO TO TACKLE THIS CURRENT LACK OF DIVERSITY IN THE TECH SPACE. ON A MORE GENERAL LEVEL, WHAT DO YOU THINK WE CAN DO MORE OF TO ENCOURAGE DIVERSITY IN THE TECH SPACE?
What we’ve been doing in the past is focusing on programmes and initiatives that put the burden of fixing this on women, right? And it takes the approach of “we need to fix women so that they can become eligible for this kind of environment” which is toxic for them in the end. We’ve seen this so many times.
Our female graduates end up in the workforce for 6-12 months because they get burnout as they don’t get the environment where they can learn so they end up leaving. This is something we need to solve but the burden shouldn’t lie on women: we need to focus on systemic changes. The workplace needs to change policies around. The systemic change needs to come above the policy-making level – both on the government and corporate levels. It’s all well and good to see that they have goodwill but we need actionable change! We see a lot of campaigns where they’re featuring a lot of these women, but does it actually impact their lives?
Whether positive or not, it’s simply just more window dressing for those companies. I’ve turned down many opportunities because we need to stop capitalising on the issue. Of course, there are women looking for exposure and allyship and we shouldn’t discount this! At the same time, it shouldn’t just be for the company image. It should have a long-term impact on the lives of the women that you are trying to feature in your campaigns. The situation is the same if you’re a female founder for example. Not only are you judged more harshly when you go to pitch desk for funding but the ridiculous amount of pressure and the kind of pressure that you have to perform and show results or financial projections. If you compare it with how the male founders would be judged as compared to female founders, it’s quite ridiculous. And the amount of pressure that female founders have is immense. And despite all that, despite her pitch deck being exceptional, she might still not end up getting funded because we’re not used to trusting women with money. But we would instantly trust a white male for a very similar, possibly less developed project. So two things could be said and interpreted completely differently depending on the gender of the person speaking. Exactly. I get you. You’ve actioned a lot of your beliefs, for example at the UN, Government and Conferences, and seen a lot of lives changed. What’s been a highlight of your career? When we talk about changing lives, I know it’s such a cliché, but you hear the stories of how someone’s life has changed their earning capability 6, 12 months down the line. We see the journey of graduates who have set up brilliant careers and see them develop from the first time we sat down with them to now. That gives me so much energy and power to go on with the work that we do. I have to say, I have an amazing team, a diverse panel of experts and advisors who truly believe in what we are doing, and this is what we all take great joy in. From hearing the stories and feedback to finding out what they are doing now and what projects they’ve created. It gives me absolute joy to be a part of these stories whether directly or indirectly.
WHAT WOULD BE ONE PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WOULD GIVE SOMEONE FROM A DIVERSE BACKGROUND WHO IS LOOKING TO JOIN THE TECH SPACE AS IT CURRENTLY STANDS?
If you start your learning journey today, in 6 months’ time you will be amazed at how many opportunities open up to you. From strategic courses where you build your skills to aligning yourself with like-minded people, you will find yourself in a completely different spot. The sense of community and sense of belonging is so important - so start connecting!
Thank you so much for your time. Do you have anything, in particular, you want to end on?
Thank you! Cindy Gallop’s quote really resonates with me, as we hear more and more stories from female founders and Women in Tech; “Don’t empower me, Pay me.” And this should be the tone for all women-focused campaigns and programs now in my opinion. Whether it is an indigenous woman in the Americas, an artisan from rural Pakistan or a tech entrepreneur in the city of Amsterdam, they all want to just run their businesses. And be financially independent! It’s important to build confidence and endorse our technical and leadership skills: but, at the same time, please don’t use those things as excuses to not pay women their due share. It’s time they got their fair share in the economy of 2023! That’s what I would like to end on
Thanks, Iffat, you rock!
Interview by Lizzie Murray