Portrait Sadia Shakil

Strong Women Empower Women

Female entrepreneur Sadia Shakil travelled to her native country of Pakistan for the German government’s lecture programme to speak to female founders about female entrepreneurship and her own career in the IT industry. In this interview, she speaks about her impressions, role models and the empowering role of networks.

The interview was conducted by Juliane Pfordte

ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): Ms. Shakil, you were born in Karachi in 1975, studied microbiology there and learned German at the Goethe-Institut in your spare time. What raised your interest in the German language and culture?

Sadia Shakil: I am a very inquisitive person. Already as a child I wanted to learn about other countries and cultures, which is why I read a great deal and with pleasure. Books were my gateway to the world. At some point, I wanted to read in the original language, so I began to learn foreign languages: first French, then German and that’s when is clicked – I fell in love with this language! I received a scholarship from the Goethe-Institut in Karachi for a stay in Germany, where I realized very quickly that I wanted to return to this country.

You studied information technology in Germany and worked for several years as a software developer until, in 2010, you decided to found your own company, Axtrion, a cloud solution provider. What caused the change from microbiology to information technology? What fascinated you about this?

I saw better career opportunities in information technology than in the field of microbiology. When I moved to Germany in the middle of the ‘90s, there was a lot of talk about digitalisation; people were just starting to talk about information technology and I knew: computers are tomorrow’s new tools. I wanted to help shape this development. Programming is very practically orientated and this industry continues to develop rapidly. You’re never finished and continuously learning. This fascinated me from the very beginning.


Making Women In Technical Professions More Visible

In Germany, relatively few women choose a career in information technology. According to the Federal Government’s Third Gender Equality Report, the proportion of women is 16 per cent. What difficulties did you as a woman experience in a male-dominated industry? Did your gender play a role?

Sadia Shakil with Shalar Ali from the National Incubation Centre Islamabad, photo: NIC/Shayan Yar.
Sadia Shakil with Shalar Ali from the National Incubation Centre Islamabad, photo: NIC/Shayan Yar.

When I studied information technology, I was one of three women in the whole year. That surprised me, because I had expected that in such a progressive country as Germany more women would be interested in the technologies of the future. Often in my first jobs I was also the only woman in the conference room. But I never felt disadvantaged by this.

Naturally, there were situations in which my project partners may not have met me on quite an equal footing, but that never played a role in my eyes. Instead, I wondered why there were so few women in my professional environment. That was also the reason why I became involved in the German Association of Women Entrepreneurs [Verband deutscher Unternehmerinnen (VdU)]. I wanted to exchange views and make women in technical professions more visible.

Why do you think that there are still more men than women who choose this profession?

There are various reasons for this: on the one hand, information technology still appears to be a very dry subject. On the other hand, education and socialisation play a role. There’s a lot of talk about reforming the educational system to promote interest in the STEM* subjects in school. And there’s no doubt that this is important, but we have to start even earlier. From an early age, children are taught gender-specific differences. Boys wear blue, girls pink; boys play with dredgers, girls with dolls; boys are naturally technically gifted, girls not so. But this is not true. We should teach children that they can do and create anything they want, irrespective of their gender. Of course, not everyone is enthusiastic about a technical profession, but it is extremely important that parents teach their children to be self-confident – and give them role models!

Who were your role models? Who were the people who boosted your self-confidence?

When I was young, books had a great influence on me, because they expanded my horizon and introduced me to different ways of life which I hardly knew from my surroundings in Pakistan. For example, Brigitte Schwaiger’s novel, “Why is there salt in the sea?” [“Wie kommt das Salz ins Meer”] is about a woman who attempts to break free of the tight corset of her role as a wife. “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse also played a crucial role for me. Its message is that everyone must go their own way and that, in the end, it is our decisions which make us the people we are. But my parents influenced me the most. They never pushed me into a particular role or said, “You want to study information technology? That’s not for girls!” They always encouraged me and supported my dreams, for which I am eternally grateful.


Women’s Rights in Pakistan: Huge Differences Between Urban and Rural Areas

In 2022, you travelled to your native country for the German government’s lecture programme and spoke to female founders and female IT students about female entrepreneurship and your own career as a female entrepreneur in the digital industry. What impressions from this journey have stayed in your mind?

For me, it meant something special to represent my adopted country in my native country, because I carry both countries within me. I left Pakistan at the age of 20 and since then, of course, a lot has changed. The start-up scene is growing in Karachi and I met quite a number of interesting and ambitious women whose career plans and individual paths in life impressed me greatly.

In what way?

The women told me quite matter-of-factly about their jobs and that they will move to another city for this reason. That surprised me in a very positive manner, because 30 years ago this was not a matter of course. At that time, although women were able to study, only a very few became employed after they graduated. Their careers ended when they got married, because their culture demanded that they be only a housewife and mother. My impression is that these patriarchal structures are breaking down very slowly, which is probably due to the country’s catastrophic economic situation. Many men wish for a working partner, because as the sole breadwinner they can hardly feed their families.


Pakistan still has one of the lowest female employment rates worldwide; most women are employed in the informal economy and violence against women occurs again and again, in public spaces as well. What challenges did the local women talk about?

This trip took me only to the big cities of Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi where you find a completely different type of dynamics compared to that of the countryside, for example in the conservative tribal areas on the border with Pakistan, where patriarchal structures still dominate and women are practically non-existent in public and economic life. For this reason, challenges were not really a topic at the events. The biggest difficulty, however, is financial independence. There is a lack of state support programmes such as microcredit programmes which enable women in rural areas to produce and sell something from their homes and thus earn their own money. Not every woman has the opportunity to study or move to the city.

Sadia Shakil speaks at the Women Leaders Seminar.
"Empowered Women Empower Women" was the title of Sadia Shakil's presentation at the Women Leaders Seminar in Karachi, photo: New World Concepts

What effect has the seizure of power by the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan had on the situation of women in Pakistan?

The current government has little sympathy for the Taliban and there is also resistance among the population. When we speak about the Taliban, we first think of the restriction of women’s rights, and rightly so, because we can see just how cruel their situation in Afghanistan is. But we mustn’t overlook the male victims because they also suffer. The seizure of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan has given Islamic extremists a boosts, including the so-called Pakistani Taliban. Again and again there are attacks in the border region in the north-west of the country, a stronghold for extremists. These are mainly carried out against Pakistani security forces and police, because they defend the state which is attempting to fight the extremists. The war in Afghanistan and the so-called war on terror have permanently destabilized Pakistan. Everyone suffers from the lack of security, both men and women.

Do you sometimes ask yourself what your life would have been like if you had stayed in Pakistan?

Sometimes I think about whether it was right to leave. Pakistan is fighting a very serious brain drain. The average age of the population is 23; there is a surplus of skilled workers and not enough jobs. Naturally, if everyone turns their backs on the country nothing can be improved. This is why I am trying to contribute something towards the development of the country from my location in Germany. Today, a permanent staff works remotely from Karachi in the company I founded in 2010. Using cloud technologies, we can work together transnationally, regardless of location. This is a huge opportunity, especially for the young generation within the country, because not everyone has the financial means to leave the country.

What ideas and impressions did you take back to Germany with you from this lecture tour?

I have realized once again how important women’s networks are, because this is exactly what is missing in Pakistan. Active public relations work and, last but not least, the clear representation of interests vis-à-vis national politics are the key to empowering female entrepreneurship and the equal participation of women. Networks are important: they also help to learn about others’ personal and professional experiences. This is why I am thinking about expanding the work of the German Association of Women Entrepreneurs to Pakistan, for example by means of a digital mentoring programme. It is important that we empower one another. The Afro-American author, Toni Morrison, once put it very succinctly, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

*Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

About Sadia Shakil
Portrait of Sadia Shakil
Sadia Shakil
Founder & CEO of Axtrion

Sadia Shakil is the founder and managing partner of Axtrion with a focus on capital management, customer satisfaction and building the company into a market leader in innovative information technologies. She holds a Postgraduate Certificate in Computer Science from the University of Wolverhampton and a Masters in Applied Computing from the University of Lüneburg. Shakil is a member of the national board of the Association of German Women Entrepreneurs (VdU) and an ambassador for the nationwide initiative “STEM – creating the future” ["MINT-Zukunft schaffen"].

Lecture Programme of the German Federal Government

Experts from politics, academia, culture and the media provide up-to-date and multi-faceted information about Germany in lectures and panel discussions. The ifa organises the Federal Government's lecture programme together with the German embassies and consulates abroad. It is aimed at multipliers from civil society in these countries. Find out more on the ifa website.