Systers 30

Systers 30: Iffat Gill’s Global Campaign

By Iffat Gill
Founder of Code to Change

Systers is a close-knit, diverse, and global community for women involved in the technical aspects of computing. Founded in 1987 by Anita Borg together with 12 other women as a small electronic mailing list for women in “systems,” it now comprises more than 6,000 women technologists from more than 60 countries. In honor of Systers’ 30th anniversary, we’re sharing the stories of 30 members who represent the community’s breadth and depth.

In 2010, I was visiting Pakistan when a young woman saw me using a laptop and approached me. She was about 20 years old, had recently graduated from school, and had succeeded in landing her first job interview. The only thing stopping her from getting the job was the fact that she didn’t know how to use a computer.

Most jobs in today’s world require employees to have some sort of digital skills. However, in less developed areas of Pakistan, there are no opportunities for girls to use computers and learn these skills. This was the problem the young woman faced, so she asked me if I could teach her.

That was the moment that inspired me to begin a global campaign to get more women online. I came up with the idea to create a center dedicated to promoting the inclusion of women in the digital world. I knew I would need funding to make this dream a reality, so I applied for the Systers’ Pass It On Awards.

The Pass It On Awards provide women technologists with the financial means to support other women in tech. After receiving this grant, which was funded by donations from the Systers community, I was able to start the Community Technology Center for Women. Through this project, I could empower women in rural Pakistan by training them on modern information and communication technologies (ICT).

Receiving the grant wasn’t the only way Systers helped me. By joining Systers, I found support and a sense of belonging, something I never really had early in my career. I had always felt like I was alone, and that no one wanted to help me in my mission to change the tech field. I had joined other online communities, but the discussions in those groups were often very general and superficial.

The members of Systers, on the other hand, discuss both the technical and personal issues they face in their careers, and we all receive an amazing amount of support from other members. Reading the many inspiring stories of these Systers, I thought,  “What a relief— I’m not the only one out there trying to make a change in my field.”

Encouraged to bring about further change, I founded ChunriChoupaal, an international nonprofit organization that empowers women change leaders. Our signature project, Code to Change, is an extensive five-month program aimed at women who want to kick-start a career in ICT. For the first three days, we host a coding bootcamp where we introduce women to simple coding systems and different technical fields. Then, after three months of mentorship, these women gain experience by working on assignments with their mentors or by seeking job opportunities on their own.

Systers also inspired me to found ABI.Amsterdam, an ABI.Local community where women technologists in the Netherlands can connect with and support one another. Since then, I have had the chance to give talks and meet other Systers in person at ABI.Local events. I also continue to speak with Systers members online, offering advice and sharing my own experiences.

My involvement with Systers has shown me the importance of having a support group. We all need someone to talk to, and being a part of Systers reminds members that there is always someone listening. Whether members are sharing their own stories, giving advice, or simply absorbing the information that others post, Systers provides them with the chance to grow and learn from one another.