28th March, 2018

From Iran to New Zealand: the gender challenge in tech

When Dr Mahsa Mohaghegh moved from Iran to New Zealand, she assumed she’d find a more equitable tech sector. Sadly, she was wrong.

After completing her master’s degree in Computer Systems Engineering in the Middle East, she moved to New Zealand to complete her PhD in Artificial Intelligence in 2008.

“In Iran, I was the only female in my class,” she said. “When I moved to New Zealand, I thought the situation would be different. But soon I discovered the gender gap was just as big in a Western country.”

“Girls were missing from computer engineering and ICT classes and I didn’t know why.”

She tells her story in the MYOB Women in Tech report, outlining the experience of moving to New Zealand only to find gender inequality in tech as rife as it was in Iran.

Dr Mohaghegh’s also gone on to lecture for almost eight years, but said the situation hasn’t really improved.

“I thought perhaps it was a generational issue, but last semester out of my 250 students, just 10 were girls,” she said.

She puts it down to a problem easy to diagnose but difficult to solve: perception.

“You can’t be who you can’t see”

Dr Mohaghegh thinks a large part of why her classes are only four percent filled by women is down to the way the industry as a whole is perceived.

“Students think [tech is] about sitting behind a computer by yourself, or that it’s not creative at all. But I’ve been in the industry for 15 years and I can say without a doubt that it’s anything but boring, with technology changing every day,” she said.

She also said that the perception of tech as a male-dominated ‘boring’ industry became a self-fulfilling perception.

“I think one potential reason is our lack of female role models in this field. You can’t be who you can’t see,” said Dr Mohaghegh.

“If you can’t see yourself in your role model, you’re never going to try to be like them.

“This is particularly true for high-school girls who see the industry as daunting and isolated.”

It’s why Dr Mohaghegh and other pioneering women in the industry are taking action to help shift perceptions.

She Sharp

Two years after receiving the Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship, awarded to women excelling in computing and technology, she founded She Sharp – a networking, events and educational platform designed to help bridge the gender gap in NZ tech.

“We inspire young girls to pursue careers in tech by connecting them with female role models, engaging them in practical workshops and challenging the misconceptions about the industry,” Dr Mohaghegh said.

Since 2014, She Sharp has grown from 25 members to more than 700.

She said while NZ had a long way to go to make sure women were fairly represented in the tech sector, that there were some worthwhile initiatives happening.

“There are some great initiatives in New Zealand which puts us in a better position than many other countries around the world,” she said.

“We just need to encourage more girls to consider tech, and not let others’ expectations hold them back from doing something they love.”


Want to read more about closing the gender gap in NZ tech?
Download the
MYOB Women in Tech report now.