Nearshore Americas
women in tech

Colombia’s Untapped Resource: Women in IT

Companies around the world have faced challenges diversifying their IT workforce, particularly when it comes to gender parity. As a result, they have often looked to governments and educational institutions for help. Colombia, which is experiencing a mini boom in IT investment, is no different.

“In Bogotá, we’ve launched a World Bank pilot for women in IT,” says Patricia González Ávila, VP of Public Private Relations at the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce. “The plan is to get an additional 150 women into the tech workforce.”

González Ávila notes that Colombia, which has some excellent examples of female leadership in business and IT, needs to do better to get more women employed in the technology sector. At present, only 17% of IT jobs in Colombia are occupied by women, yet the industry represents impressive opportunity: in 2019, the 1,800 software development companies in Colombia are expected to add 39,000 jobs related to software development and programming, reaching a total of 351,000.

The World Bank alliance includes the Chamber of Commerce, BICTIA – Bogotá’s ICT incubator and accelerator, which is financed with support from Norway – as well as Invest in Bogotá, and the Bogotá Institute of Technology (BIT).

“We’ve had over 4,000 applications, and have already begun with our first cohort of 80 candidates,” says César Augusto Forero Arevalo, BIT’s Director. “The second cohort begins on September 16.”

All of the training, which focusses on programming and web development, will occur at the Bogotá Institute of Technology. To qualify for the scholarship, candidates have to be women who have finished high school, and are living in Bogotá. Additionally, they have to fulfil at least one of the following three requirements: six months work experience in any job; completion of a technical certificate; or an outstanding score on the technical entrance exam.

“The World Bank and the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce fund 80% of the scholarship, with the candidates responsible for 20%,” says Forero Arevalo. “The candidates are between 18 and 40 years of age, and apply by filling out a survey which consists of 200 questions, which includes soft skills. After the four month course period, a graduate will qualify as a junior developer.”

The program in Colombia follows on the success of a similar initiative on Argentina, which was also funded by the World Bank and piloted by Digital House in Buenos Aires. Total cost is about US$900, with the students expected to pay only US$180. While this seems low, it can still represent a barrier to entry for some women. Tuition financing is therefore available, with repayment in installments.

Given that 4,000 women applied in Bogotá, and only 150 will be accepted, it is expected that the quality of the graduates will be high. At the end of the course, Colombia will have more female web programmers and full stack developers – but still not nearly enough to meet the burgeoning demand

Colombia: Female Leadership Sets the Stage

At Bogotá’s 4th Foreign Investment Summit, which was held on August 14th, examples of female leadership in the Colombian business and IT community were on full display. A panel discussion was led by Anna Karina Quessep, president of the Colombian BPO Association (Bpro), who asked representatives from Teleperformance and Scotiabank about the importance of engaging young talent in Colombia, and the role of women.

Alcides Vargas Manotas of Scotiabank

“About 60% of our employees in Bogotá are women, with 80% pf these speaking English, and most of them single and between the ages of 21 and 25,” said Alcides Vargas Manotas, the general manager of Scotiabank’s shared services organization in Bogotá. “The most important thing for us is that they want a career path. We will help plan that, which will often result in them moving on to more demanding jobs.”

It is not uncommon for some women to use BPO, or work in a shared services organization, as a stepping stone to a more lucrative career. Proficiency in English, and exposure to international business practices, can provide the needed start – but usually only when it is also complimented with post-secondary education.

“At our operations in Colombia, over 56% of our 3,000 employees are women,” said Juan Carlos Hincapie, CEO of Teleperformance. “Most of these employees are also studying at university.”

Hincapie was also a speaker at Bogotá’s first Women in ICT Forum, which was held at the W Hotel in Bogotá on July 12. The Women in ICT Forum saw presentations by female leaders in ICT such as Catalina Rengifo (head of government and regulatory affairs for IBM in Spanish South America), Galé Mallol Agudelo (executive president of ASOTIC, Colombia’s ICT association), and Sylvia Constaín (Colombia’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology).

The message at the Forum was similar to that presented by some of the speakers at the August 14 Summit, who noted that the combined IT and BPO industry in Bogotá accounts for 7.5% of the jobs in the city, or approximately 315, 000, people. Given that 6 out of 10 companies in Colombia plan on hiring more ICT professionals in the remainder of 2019, increased participation by women is essential.

The Investment Summit in Bogotá was also notable for the participation of female ICT executives who are actively driving innovation in IT in Colombia.

Johanna Harker of Open Future

“Colombians who have left the country looking for opportunity are now coming back,” said Johanna Harker, a Colombian with a law degree from Bogotá’s Pontifical Xavierian University, who is Director of Open Future at Wayra Colombia. “This has been a trend since 2010, and is getting better.”

Wayra is a Telefonica company that invests in startups, and Open Future is Telefonica´s global initiative aimed at connecting the company to entrepreneurs, investors and public and private partners. Harker has been behind the shift in turning Wayra from an accelerator to an innovation hub. Under Ms. Harker’s leadership, Wayra has invested USD 2.2 million in early stage Colombian companies, with 23 of these companies still active.

Also speaking at the Forum was Juliana Pulecio Velazquez, who is helping with the Colombian launch of DiDi, a Chinese transportation services company. DiDi is in Colombia to help solve the challenging congestion problems of the city of nine million.

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“DiDi has almost 7,000 employees, about half of whom are data scientists,” Ms. Pulecia Velazquez told the audience in Bogotá. “These people are working in big data and artificial intelligence to optimize traffic flow and to reduce congestion.”

Bringing technology like this to Colombia will require not only investments in education, and examples of female executive leadership, but also a specific focus on women in IT, and a continued focus on public education initiatives.

“We seek to develop ICT skills and competencies, with certified training, totally free and, in addition, adjusted to the available times of the people,” Juanita Rodriguez Kattah, Colombia’s Vice Minister of Digital Economy, said during last year’s release of a survey indicating that 81% of Colombian women access the Internet, and 90% have a cell phone.

That research found that 61% of women in Colombia are interested in being trained in ICT. A small but not inconsequential number of women – 7 out of 1,000 – had been actively involved in creating applications, software, movies, or video games. A big part of the challenge appears to be social expectations based on gender roles: 52% said that they would not consider a career in ICT due to gender-based stereotypes, including parental disapproval, even though 43% had considered a career in technology.

Public initiatives – such as this year’s successful FOROMET conference on Medellin, which was sponsored by BBVA and which promoted women in ICT – are in dire need, given that Colombia has a population of 48 million, with women representing a huge untapped labor pool. And though a bootcamp like the one offered by the Bogotá Institute of Technology would seem to be a small gesture, it is clear that female ICT leadership in Colombia is strong.

Tim Wilson

Tim has been a contributing analyst to Nearshore Americas since 2012. He is a former Research Analyst with IDC in Toronto and has over 20 years’ experience as a technology and business journalist, including extensive reporting from Latin America. A graduate of McGill University in Montreal, he has received numerous accolades for his writing, including a CBC Literary and a National Magazine award. He divides his time between Canada and Mexico. When not chasing down stories, he is busy writing the Detective Sánchez series of crime novels.

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