Closing the STEM gender gap: Training women in geospatial information technology

10 Jan 2022
Spatial distribution of participants in 2021
Spatial distribution of participants in 2021

Earth observation (EO) and geospatial information technology (GIT) are steadily making inroads across major disciplines of study, and this has undoubtedly benefited societies and countries across the world. However, men dominate the EO and GIT fields, in academia as well as in the workforce. Technology is shaped and structured according to societal norms and gender relations, which are in turn influenced by technology. This means that technology and applications have tended to be masculinist – produced, wielded, and controlled by men, who have historically benefited more from education and technology. Women researchers and technologists are few and far between in the EO and GIT fields. The skills, perspectives, and innovations lost because of this gender imbalance are immeasurable.

To specifically help bridge this evident gender gap, we have been organizing a series of trainings – “Empowering women in geospatial information technology” – for young and early career women under our SERVIR Hindu Kush Himalaya (SERVIR-HKH) Initiative. We extended the training exclusively to Nepali women in 2018–2020, and Pakistani women in 2020.

Realizing the need and huge demand for such training among women in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region, we scaled out the training to other HKH countries in 2021. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we organized these training virtually, which meant more preparatory work and more screen time, having to deliver training across time zones, and having to deal with technical issues – internet connectivity and power outages. However, this mode of training also had its fair share of advantages. We were able to reach out to more women from remote areas in each iteration of the training, which would have been logistically challenging in in-person trainings. Between May and August in 2021, we trained 235 women – including 3 professors, 24 lecturers, and 10 teachers – from 166 diverse institutions in Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. We reviewed just over 900 applications for placement in the training.

Spatial distribution of participants in 2021

High-level dignitaries – including our Director General, the Vice-Chancellor (VC) of Jahangirnagar University, the Secretary of the Ministry of Chattogram Hill Tracts Affairs in Bangladesh, the Director General of Research and External Relations of the Royal University of Bhutan, and the Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests in Bhutan – addressed the opening sessions and shared their commitment to bridge the STEM gender gap in the region.

Inside the trainings

Our trainings introduced the participants to geospatial and remote-sensing concepts, the latest developments in EO/GIT and their different applications, and SERVIR-HKH products and services focused on environmental issues in the HKH region. We customized the training resources for each training: flood inundation mapping and damage assessment for Bangladesh, agricultural drought mapping and forest monitoring for Pakistan and Nepal, and agricultural drought monitoring and glacier dynamics application for Afghanistan, and stream and catchment delineation for Bhutan.

Testimonials

Taslima Zahan, Scientific Officer at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), shares that post-training she found herself more focused, confident, and clearer about GIS and remote-sensing concepts. She adds, “I am now able to carry out the analysis and generate required maps using QGIS and Google Earth Engine, which was only possible because of this resourceful training.” Post-training, Zahan collected GPS field data to monitor climate change impacts in Gazipur, Bangladesh. She analysed these data points to prepare maps that were incorporated into a project report.

Read Taslima Zahan’s blog – GIT training opens up new avenues for Bangladeshi women

Rama Ghimire, an EIA consultant from Nepal, stated that the training helped her grow academically and boosted her confidence. Utilizing data, tools, and skills from the training, she created around 50 climate risk maps for municipalities in Nepal.

Read Rama Ghimire’s blog – Broadening the horizons for women researchers in Nepal

Kainat Javed, Research Assistant at the Global Change Impact Study Centre, Pakistan, shared that as a gender and climate change researcher, the training helped fill data gaps on pertinent ecological imbalances like urban sprawl and land degradation, and map gendered vulnerabilities.

Read Kainat Javed’s blog – Fulfilling a deferred dream

Choki Wangmo, a teacher at Shaba Higher Secondary School in Bhutan, shared that training more women educationists in Bhutan can introduce such concepts to students of different age groups, helping produce more women who can pursue the GIT and EO fields.

Read Choki Wangmo’s blog – Empowering women educators in Bhutan

Lessons learnt from the trainings

We have outlined below a few of the lessons learnt and challenges faced while organizing the trainings for different countries:

  • The knowledge and skillsets and cultural, societal, and linguistic idiosyncrasies were unique to each country and the understanding of the subject matter varied across the four countries. Participants from Afghanistan were generally relatively unaware of the topics and technological improvements in EO and GIT, while the Bhutanese participants were relatively well informed and had a strong academic base and acumen. This could have been influenced by social disparities in women's educational systems in each country. To ensure a seamless delivery of the training and to cater to the different cultural contexts and language needs in each country, we engaged native subject matter experts for each training event so that participants could communicate comfortably in their language. Our in-country team of subject matter experts in Afghanistan supported the Afghanistan edition of the training, providing much-needed translation and hands-on support throughout.
  • A diverse group of women participants ensured healthy discussions and eased cross-learning opportunities between different academic disciplines. We also ensured that our course materials accommodated examples from diverse disciplines.
  • Most of the Afghani participants missed out on some of the live sessions due to power and internet outages as in-fighting progressed in the country. Despite the deteriorating security situation, 40 of the 50 registered participants were able to finish the training course within the stipulated period.
  • While attending the training virtually, most participants were also juggling household chores and childcare duties and facing internet and power outages. This often led them to miss out on the live sessions. They requested that we space the four-day coursework and practical exercises over a two-week period.
  • Providing participants with training resources ahead of the workshop and session recordings each day helped participants catch up on lessons and allayed problems caused by slow internet and internet/power outages; a separate channel for communication on WhatsApp/Viber channel eased communication.
  • Evaluating the impact of our capacity building approach using self-assessment tools – pre- and post-training assessments surveys – has its share of limitations; responses on the pre-training survey were not a true reflection of the participants’ knowledge and skillsets as became evident during the training.

Through our “Empowering women in GIT” trainings, we have helped over 400 women in the HKH region gain at least basic skills in EO/GIT concepts and applications. As our primary focus has been on bridging the technology and gender gap, adoption of virtual training methods incorporating innovative modules – incorporation of a learning management system, designing advanced training modules, and engaging outstanding trainees in mini-projects – seems the plausible way forward. Through this initiative, we hope to see more women play an active role in using and proliferating science and technology for informed decision making in the HKH region.

Authors

Poonam Tripathi

Geospatial Training Analyst

Rajesh Bahadur Thapa

Remote Sensing and Geoinformation Specialist

Utsav Maden

Knowledge Management and Communication Officer