Sreylin Meng plans to use technology to help Cambodia grow. The 19-year-old has been working with her classmates on a crop-irrigation app since she started at the National Institute of Posts, Telecoms & ICT.
Developing a tech product of this scope is difficult enough, but Meng said she faced another challenge as the only woman on the team — and also the leader.
“As a woman, we have a barrier to the cultural norm. But if we don’t leave our comfort zone, we cannot catch big fish,” said Meng. “We have to show our genius and commitment to [the world].”
Studies have shown that in developing countries like Cambodia, fewer women than men pursue careers in technology. A 2017 report found that women in Cambodia accounted for just 8.5% of the 16,415 students in tech-related post-secondary programs.
But this trend might be changing. A study by USAID in 2019 found the most popular career choices among women respondents in Cambodia between the ages of 18 to 29 were tech entrepreneur, leaders of a tech company and computer software engineer.
There has also been a wave of tech-related programs developed for Cambodia women, including Technovation Cambodia, Project Girl Code and the Women Techmakers events sponsored by the Google Developers Group of Phnom Penh. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications has organized the Cambodian Women in Tech Awards and the Women Techmakers Scholars Program for Women in the Asia Pacific.
Meng envisions even greater success for the Kingdom’s women tech leaders. Not only is she the CEO of the irrigation app project, known as Smart Farm Assistance, she recently won first place in the She Loves Tech Cambodia 2020 Awards. The awards, the world’s largest competition for women and technology, were co-organized by She Loves Tech and Raintree in partnership with the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, Ministry of Economy and Finance, Khmer Enterprise and Global Shapers Phnom Penh Hub.
Working on the app can be frustrating and time-consuming, she told Newsroom Cambodia, adding that the passion of her team inspires her to keep moving forward.
“When I face challenges, I always accept that there will be a solution,” Meng said. “I want to make things that seem impossible possible and show my team that we can overcome them together.”
Social and family pressures have prevented women in Cambodia from pursuing higher education in the technology field, according to several women who spoke to Newsroom Cambodia.
Sovannmonynuth Heng, a 20-year-old senior Computer Science major at Norton University, has won several awards for technological innovation. She said her parents were at first unsupportive of her choice of technology as a field of study, but have since changed their minds.
“This career is not just for men. I strongly encourage all young women who are passionate about this field to please go for it. Do not let old perspectives stop you from what you really want in life,” said Heng.
Cheavfong Hong, 18, traveled from Battambang province to study Computer Science at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She told Newsroom Cambodia her parents approved of her choice of a tech major, but there had been other challenges.
“What I lack is research skills. I think girls like me from the provinces lack knowledge, learning skills and researching methods,” Hong said. “But I won’t give up.”
Twenty years ago, Ms. Pong Limsan was one of the only women studying Computer Science at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Today, the mother of two children is the founder and CEO of Peth-Yoeung Healthcare Management, a cloud-based hospital operating system that was invented to modernize hospitals and clinics.
She said parents were important in encouraging young women to follow what they love.
“In order to be successful in this field, you must follow your passion,” Limsan said. “If there is a high risk of failure, it doesn’t matter if it’s a woman or a man. As long as you work hard and find opportunities, you will succeed.”
Sovannary Khun, a sophomore Computer Science major at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, told Newsroom Cambodia there are only six women in her class of about 50 students, a much higher gender imbalance than in other departments at the university. Khun, however, has managed to always be at the top of her class.
Khun said her parents supported her choice of major and she was optimistic about embarking on a career in technology.
“More women will soon get to work in this field because of the support from their families and the inspiration from other [women tech leaders],” she said.
“In some cases, we need both males and females to work together to make things better. As one of my favorite female engineers said, ‘We cannot let men control the world alone!'”