Why we need more women in health care and tech

Without women’s participation at every level, our progress will stagnate

Bangladesh is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world with a 7-8% average GDP growth rate. According to a December 2019 report from the World Economic League Table 2020, out of 193 countries, our economy will jump from the 41st largest in 2019 to the 26th largest economy in the world by 2023. 

For our young country, this is undoubtedly an impressive feat, especially considering that upon independence, we struggled with poverty and natural calamities and were considered a “least developed country” and even a “basket case” according to Henry Kissinger.

Many factors have come together to achieve this progress. In fact, as an American-born Bangladeshi, observing Bangladesh’s growth from afar for most of my life before relocating to Bangladesh for the first time a few years ago, Bangladesh’s incredible growth story is what inspired me to study development economics, and indeed to become an entrepreneur. 

The public sector’s investments in primary care at the rural and base of the pyramid level have helped to improve livelihoods and promote a strong working population that has driven the growth. 

This country has also seen dramatic innovation in development, technology, and science to solve some of Bangladesh’s most pressing problems. Women have been critical, both as leaders and as participants in this new economy. A July 2018 article published by the Dhaka Tribune applauds the huge strides Bangladesh has made in terms of women empowerment and gender equality. 

Women’s growing economic participation earned Bangladesh the first spot among South Asian countries, ranking 47th among 144 countries for gender equality. 

The World Bank reports that the female workforce jumped to nearly 40% in 2019, from 23% in 1990 -- there is no doubt that women’s economic empowerment has been a key part of Bangladesh’s economic success. Indeed, across many sectors, the significance of women’s contributions to our economy is staggering.

A shining example of this is Aarong, the retail arm of Brac. 

In the 1970s, Brac observed that although women in Bangladesh were increasingly involved in agricultural activities, and women completed about 75% of the agricultural work, the men who marketed the crops reaped the profits. 

Brac established Aarong in 1978 to provide direct employment, income generation, and social development opportunities for Bangladeshi women by reviving the handicraft sector. 

Today, out of the over 65,000 workers Aarong employs, the majority of them are women in rural areas. Another example of the impact of women’s financial inclusion is in the ready-made garments sector, which has been an important part of Bangladesh’s recent growth story. 

According to a recent survey of the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), of the 3.5 million workers employed by the RMG sector, more than 60% are women. By creating jobs for women, the RMG sector and innovative models like Aarong’s have fueled our economic growth. 

Women’s economic empowerment and financial inclusion are an essential underlying component for any economy to achieve sustainable economic development.

All of these early developments in Bangladesh helped to spur a huge surge in women studying science, technology, and engineering. 

Still, despite this, the technology sector in particular largely undervalues women’s contribution to tech or engineering, with a lingering perception that women do not have the adequate technical knowledge, even if they possess formal and advanced educational training in the IT sector.

In order to truly solve the problems of our nation, we must recognize and elevate women’s contribution to the tech sector, be respected as equals, and be encouraged to be more involved in the IT sector.

There are several examples of women doing incredible work for the technology sector. The founders of prominent health-tech players such as Maya Apa and Pulse Healthcare Services are women. 

Praava Health’s very own chief innovation officer, senior medical director, and IT director are also women, and lead innovations, product development, and IT solutions in the company.

Evidence is clear that having more women in leadership improves businesses’ bottom lines, as greater gender diversity improves productivity and increases overall returns. 

But beyond pure profits, having more women in technology can ensure that the technology we build as a country solves the problems that women (49.4% of our population) face -- in their careers, in caring for their families, or managing their own health.

In the spirit of International Women’s Day, I want to recognize the amazing accomplishments in particular of two Bangladeshi women to innovation in science and technology. Two such notable names are Dr Firdausi Qadri and Dr Senjuti Saha.

Dr Firdausi, head of the Mucosal Immunology and Vaccinology unit of icddr,b, was announced the winner of the L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Award (Asia-Pacific region) in Feb 2020 for her contribution to understanding and preventing infectious diseases affecting children in developing countries, while promoting early diagnosis and vaccination.

In January 2020, Dr Senjuti and her father Dr Samir Saha were praised by Bill Gates in a statement and video titled “Bill Gates’s Heroes in the Field” for their efforts in the fight against global infectious diseases. 

Dr Senjuti’s work focuses on finding simpler ways to diagnose mysterious illnesses in underdeveloped countries that affect newborns and children.

In 2017, Dr Senjuti was able to find the cause behind an unexplained outbreak of meningitis cases among children in Bangladesh.

As we step into a new decade, I hope we can progress past the stereotype that women cannot lead breakthroughs in technology. Every woman creates an impact -- big or small. This can no longer go unnoticed. 

Indeed, our economy demands it -- without women’s participation at every level, our progress will stagnate. It’s time we consider women as equal collaborators to build a more prosperous, transparent, and trusted Bangladesh that we all rightfully deserve.

Sylvana Q Sinha is the Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Praava Health, a network of family health centres offering patient-centred health care and diagnostics, enabled by technology.