Africa: UN ICT Chief Believes All Girls Should Aspire to Be 'Geeks'


Atefah "Atti" Riazi, the Chief Information Technology Officer of the United Nations, carries the following items in her handbag at all times - a screwdriver set, a Swiss Army knife and an iPhone.

"Of course, the iPhone," she laughs, adding that along with Skype for keeping in touch with family while travelling, her favourite app is 'Scratch' a programme made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to teach children how to code.

"I tell my kids they can't play a game until they write a game. That's the one rule we have," she says in an interview with the UN News Centre.

Ms. Riazi notes that her own personal experience as a parent, coupled with her role as head of the UN Office of Information and Communications Technology (OICT), has given her a better understanding of the challenges the global community has encountered over the past 15 years in trying to inspire and engage women and girls in science.

If there's one thing that we don't teach women and girls, it's confidence.

In an effort to promote greater participation of women and girls in science, the UN last year declared 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. In doing so, it recognized that the full and equal access to and participation in science, technology and innovation for women and girls of all ages is imperative for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

Ms. Riazi has ten-year-old twin daughters, the latest generation in what she describes as "a family of strong women," although she is acutely aware of the sacrifices that many of them have made.

"I was born in Iran, and many of the women in my family didn't have access to education. My grandmother was an orphan who was married at nine - she was never allowed to go to school. I remember helping her to read. I was probably in first or second grade at the time.

"My mother was only allowed to go to school up to the third grade - and she always says her worst memory from her childhood was when her brothers all managed to go to school and she was held back because she was a girl. She had to stay home and learn to be a housewife."

Ms. Riazi with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a showcase sponsored by the Office of Information and Communications Technology (OICT) in October 2015 at UN Headquarters. UN Photo/E. Debebe

Her mother never forgot this experience, she adds, and, along with the man who became her father, Ms. Riazi's parents were determined to change the status quo.

"I came from a family that really believed that girls and boys could do whatever they wished to do, whatever they loved to do. Although society still put pressure on girls - as kids the girls wouldn't study math or engineering, the boys would, and it was simply expected that the girls would become teachers and nurses. But from the beginning I just didn't like the voice that constantly told me that you could not be what the boys could be."

In 1979, as the Iranian revolution took place in her home country, Ms. Riazi enrolled in the electrical engineering programme at Stony Brook University in New York. She was one of just three women in her class.

"When I came to this country I decided that I was going be an engineer because my brother was always told that he would be the engineer. I kept looking back at my mom and my grandmother - at what they couldn't have, and I knew I had to change the course. So I took engineering.

"And in the beginning it was difficult for me. Because if there's one thing that we don't teach women and girls, it's confidence. And I went through that first year of engineering thinking 'oh my goodness, this is so difficult I just can't do it.' But giving up was not an option. I was a foreign student. My country was in turmoil. I couldn't fail."

Despite the difficulties, one day she experienced a lightning bolt moment.

"I learned the beauty of mathematics once I looked at it from a social physics perspective - that's when everything changed. Going into technology, that's great. But doing it for the material gains? That's the wrong path. It should be about a bigger cause. In the technology sector, we have a lot of innovation but it's not responsible innovation. We're moving from physics to social physics - design engineering that has a social impact.

"And if you're going to do engineering, if you're going to do technology, what are you trying to get? Value for humanity, that's the ultimate goal. I realised then, that for a long time, especially in the private sector, we had used technology to improve consumers and to improve products. But how could we use technology to improve human life?"

It's been this fundamental question, she says, that has guided her throughout her 30-year career in technology, with stints as Chief Information Officer at New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (she was on the team that introduced the Metro card) and The New York City Housing Association. Three years into her role at the UN, she balances a workload that focuses on innovation but also, with the rise of the dark web and cyber-crime, protection.

"What keeps me awake at night is what I call the 'revenge of technology,'" she says.

Everything we do supports the core work of UN staff around the world, helping them do their jobs better and more efficiently.

"The dark web consists of websites that you cannot find and you cannot access unless you've been invited to go to them. For a price, you can buy a kid; you can buy a person for their organs; you can buy drugs or weapons. Technology is amoral - we've created a species that is a lot smarter than us, and very soon, especially with artificial intelligence, it's going to supersede our human mind.
Source: UN News 10 February 2016