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Self-doubt, Cultural Barriers Hinder Cambodian Women in Tech

by Sophat Soeung
Despite the growth of Cambodias fledgling tech sector, few women have joined the
field. Longtime Cambodian tech observer Sok Sikieng says although more women
are joining the industry, discriminatory barriers persist.
A lecturer of information technology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh who was
recently appointed "Technovation Ambassador" by Iridescent, an international nonprofit education group that links mentors to students, Sikieng, 29, told the Hello
VOA (Khmer) radio program last week that the increased number of women working
in the technology sector has not encouraged more young women to pursue techrelated majors in college.
In the last few years, there was a noticeably higher number of Cambodian women
tech workers who have started an association," she said. "They total around 70 [or]
80 people, and help each other to bring in more women into the field. And yet,
today we [still] dont see a marked increase in female students in tech.
Among 1,500 students who chose information and communications technology (ICT)
at the Royal University of Phnom Penh in 2014, she adds, less than 10 percentor
just 105were female. Sikieng, who has worked in the field for almost 10 years,
lays blame on a lack of role models, social stereotyping and family pressures, all of
which contribute to diminished self-confidence.
While Sikieng was fortunate to have a supportive family encourage her professional
interests, Cambodia's tech sector is still perceived as male-dominated. Female
Cambodian role models that defy stereotypes, she says, are critical to changing that
perception.
[Men] dont believe in us because there are not many Cambodian [women] role
models," said Sikieng. "It is a factor that makes them not believe that we can do it,
too. But now I have seen more Cambodian women in tech, so I hope that this
mindset will change soon.
The stereotype of male dominance is not unique to Cambodia's tech industry. The
American Association of University Women recently reported that U.S. female
computer science majors fell from 35 percent in 1990 to just 26 percent in 2013,
and that women constitute only 12 percent of American engineers, a decline that
contrasts with fields such as medicine, law and business.
Despite making up half of Cambodia's student population, women comprised only
14 percent of 2010 information technology graduates. Most of them, she adds,
chose the subject without a clear goal of professionally entering the sector. Even
she chose the subject by chance rather than long-held passion.
The main reason for the lack of enthusiasm, she said, is that discrimination can be
more pervasive in the classroom than the workplace.
If they get [good marks] in class, our female students dont attribute it to
themselves, but rather to luck," she said. "This shows that most Cambodian women
do not believe in their personal ability to succeed in ITC study.
Changing attitudes
According to Khiev Sokmesa, a senior software developer at Phnom Penh-based
InSTEDD iLab, the slight increase in Cambodian women engineers is already
changing attitudes among his male colleagues. Combined with Cambodia's recent
pivot to the so-called STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering and math),
which aims to better position the countrys workforce for a tech-centered economy,
progress is likely.
Information technology work is not exclusive to men, Sokmesa told VOA Khmer.
It is brain work, so women can also actively participate. And sometimes, they do a
better job because of their attentiveness and creativity. So I think their participation
is a positive contribution to society.

For young professional women such as Sikieng, the ability to overcome these
societal challenges is rewarded with numerous opportunities in a currently
uncompetitive field. More importantly, those women will become role models and
encourage female students to become the tech pioneers of the future.