You can't be what you can't see

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Sahar Yadegari is the Director-Manager of VHTO, a non-profit organisation with the mission to increase the number of women and girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) through research-based interventions in education, for employers and society.

Fixing the system, not the girls

VHTO operates on this powerful idea and, like RightBrains, believes that more women in the field of digital technology can be the catalyst to progress and innovation within the sector. Sahar brought her vast experience from management consulting via Ernst & Young Advisory and PwC Consulting as well as philanthropy via the Adessium Foundation when she took on the position of Director-Manager of VHTO late in 2020. To her, her career to date has prepared her for her current position, in which she can actively be a part of the solution to drive tangible change within the industry.

During Sahar’s consulting days, she practiced and honed the skill of resilience and keeping ‘head above water’ in a fast-paced business environment. Her task was to untangle issues and pieces of information with an objective view and then defending a proposed solution in a room where people were not always keen to challenge the status quo – which is often also the case in the non-profit environment. She finds that the latter can become quite intense at times: “The pressure for change is sometimes overwhelming. And in this sector, it’s a universal problem that the resources are so much less than the need, and funding needs to be stretched to the absolute max. The competency of being unaffected amidst the chaos is critical to success.” 

Facilitating a seat at the tech table

As the daughter of political refugees, politics have always been woven into the fabric of Sahar’s family life. When choosing a field of study, she was drawn to the intersection between societal issues and the role of government, so a career in public administration appealed to her. On the course of this path, she became involved in the issue of building a digital society in a time when digitalisation affects every aspect of everyone’s life. “Some of the questions to ask in this field, include: What does the digitalisation look like, what does it entail, and what does it mean for marginalised groups? How can we build a tech sector in the interest of the entire society?” Sahar feels passionate that NGOs in this field play a valuable part in representing those who are affected by technology but don’t have a seat at the proverbial table within the tech industry.

Being what you are seeing and the role of self-efficacy

It’s important to Sahar that inspirational women in the tech sector should be spotlighted and celebrated with intention. She emphasises that it’s critical for women to be a role model for other women in order to inspire their colleagues, as well as the next generation. Role models can help other girls and women build their self-efficacy in tech; the belief in themselves that they are capable of carrying out technical work. This self-efficacy can be taught through direct experience in addition to the indirect experience of witnessing someone who looks like you, doing it well. This eventually subconsciously cements the idea that if she can do it, so can I. She also believes that exposure to female role models help to normalise the notion of women thriving and contributing in the tech world to not only the future generation of women, but also to young men and even parents who are not yet aware of the huge impact their daughters can make in the field of technology. “It helps to promote the idea that being social and creative are traits that are quite in demand within the tech sector.”

According to the insightful whitepaper released by VHTO, titled ‘Women in science, technology, and IT: How to retain them as an organisation?’, women often leave the tech sector unnecessarily. “Although the number of girls and young women choosing to pursue education in technical, science, or IT fields is gradually increasing, we barely see that increase in the number of women actually working in this sector. The percentage of women in tech professions is only 16%." To Sahar, it’s also important to promote the visibility of female leaders and talents to aid with the retention of women who are already working in the field to remedy this sombre statistic -- and to help them deal with implicit biases and stereotypes that prevent them from maintaining a high level of continual self-efficacy. She articulates this simple conclusion: “Visibility tackles stereotypes.”

The value of communication and education

The issue of stereotyping is one that VHTO addresses with a delightful programme called Beeldenbrekers, which Sahar highlights as one of the projects particularly close to her heart. Students from participating schools receive an assignment from the teacher to draw a specific STEM or technical profession, for example, a dike builder, an architect, or a programmer. Many children still draw male figures to depict these technical professions – but then the class is pleasantly surprised by a female guest lecturer who talks about her work and experience in the field. With over two thousand role models registered as volunteers, Beeldenbrekers is a powerful initiative shaping perceptions in the Netherlands. According to Sahar, the underlying principle in most of their educational programmes is this: “Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”

In 2023, VHTO will act as a communication partner for the RightBrains Awards, which aims to recognise and celebrate outstanding female leadership and extraordinary male allies in the digital technology industry, who serve as inspirational role models for the next generation. “We are proud to be collaborating with RightBrains because the Awards ultimately recognises that women in the digital tech world have a real and increasingly powerful influence to create change and to make an impact. The RightBrains Awards is a fantastic vehicle to showcase this and to help celebrate the male allies who are slowly but surely making progress to show their support within the industry.”

Inspired by conviction

When looking back over the course of her career, Sahar is most proud of the resolve she has developed to overcome her fears and overcome obstacles when she feels a firm conviction that her voice needs to be heard. She is inspired on a daily basis by the community of like-minded people who are united behind VHTO’s mission and goal including colleagues, donators, educational organisations, and volunteers. She is patient and powers on when she’s well-aware that there is still a system of stereotypes that unconsciously organises most activities and likes and dislikes according to gender roles. She encourages parents to be intentional about supporting children to expand their horizons and to develop abilities from a young age, regardless of their gender. But she is also cautious about what parents can achieve on their own. “We should not pressure ourselves to personally fix deeply systemic issues as parents.”

But one thing is certain – with inspirational women like Sahar and organisations like VHTO, there is a solid trajectory for progress toward equal opportunities for girls and women as well as economic opportunities and improved technologies for society as a whole.