Coding the way to empowerment

Girls in ICT day in collaboration with CERN. Source: RightsTechWomen.

Do you know Python, Bitsbox, Raspberry Pi or Javascript? If the language is familiar, you are part of the coding family. If not, do not worry. It is never too late to learn.

In October, activities throughout Europe are organised to bring code to everybody during EU Code Week 2020. Founded in 2013 with the support of the European Commission, its success is growing. In 2019, 4.2 million people in more than 80 countries took part in 72,000 activities. The average age of the participants was 11 years old.

Switzerland and Geneva are part of the game, as the Geneva-based founder and president of RightsTechWomen (RTW), Ellen Walker, is one of the four Code week Ambassadors for Switzerland. She helps us understand how coding can help make a difference and how it can positively impact the current gender divide in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math).

Why coding is important. Code week’s message is clear: coding helps us understand the rapidly changing world around us, how technology works, and to develop skills and abilities to explore new ideas and innovate. And the skills can be applied to more than just technical questions.

“It's important because it teaches people computational thinking, it teaches people this way of approaching any problem, to break it down into smaller pieces, and work on those smaller pieces. Basically test solutions, and if something doesn't work right away, that's okay. It’s just to keep trying, keep debugging it until the thing works.”

In other words, coding is not only about learning a new language but also about approaching everyday problems in a constructive way. As tech users and consumers, opening up our minds to a learning process also gives us power to be part of the changing world. Coding is a career skill that can help design future technology.

“Everyone should feel like they also can be somebody who produces something and helps make a decision about where the world is going by developing technology. Coding can also help you come up with products and services that will shape the world, so that the technology reflects what society needs.”

Code week is not only for science teachers. Anybody can get involved. And the popular response is undeniable, as the participation almost doubled between 2018 and 2019. Last year, 49 per cent of the participants were women and girls.

The challenge of women in STEM. This high percentage is certainly bringing hope to reach equality in technology fields, but the reality is far from equal. With her background in international law, humanitarian law and human rights, Walker decided to tackle gender inequality in a new way with RTW, having witnessed the need for improving women's situations around the world for many years in her work.

“We're combining human rights work with STEM education, bringing these fields closer together so that we can all tackle STEM gender inequality collaboratively and build each other's capacities. It's not just skills you're getting. These skills are part of your rights. You have the right to education, you have a right to continue going in science education. We want to infuse the initiatives to bring more women and girls in STEM with some human rights tools, and help them know more about their own rights. This means an improved communication about human rights issues and solutions.”

Walker believes that making the connection between technology and human rights can help get better results. If tech producers know their own rights, they will develop products, that will not only reflect fundamental values but also an increased quality. And how can technology be good and representative of an equal society if women are still underrepresented across STEM?

According to a 2018 World Economic Forum (WEF) study, 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. And tech trends will play their part in the change that will affect the global employment landscape.

“We must take the projected growth of the global population into consideration, as well as the rates of job growth in the areas of tech and other STEM fields. Think about how much women are underrepresented in most of these fields, now. If the current percentages of women's participation in these fields stay the same, these gaps are just going to keep getting bigger as STEM job numbers grow. If we don’t do much to change women's presence in these fields, it's actually going to get worse. And that is a very big concern. For women to be able to have these jobs, means having a fair chance at equal economic empowerment.”

The reality in numbers. According to the research conducted by RTW based on different international reports, only about 31.5 per cent of graduates from STEM-related fields are women, and 28.8 per cent of total researchers are women in the world. Less than a third of the world’s technical workforce are women. And Switzerland is not doing better than its neighbours as only about 11 per cent of IT specialists and analysts are women. And the gap is also reflected in pay and the number of start-up initiatives led by women.

Changing the paradigm. By focusing on the rights to education and employment, RTW designed three pillars of work: advocacy and training, technology and capacity building, and research and data visualisation. In 2019, for example, RTW celebrated the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) Girls in ICT day, by collaborating with CERN on a robotics and programming workshop, adding up to a total of 400 girls trained in the Geneva area that year.

“We've started locally by training girls in tech and human rights, here in the Geneva area, through fun trainings on robotics, programming, and rights. We have planned programmes for women, which we would like to implement next, as we also scale our training for girls and grow our impact. We're also interested in collaborating with companies, to find out what's happening there and support them to change internally. Through advocacy and our contacts with women working in STEM, we collect information that we feed into our work. We turn to larger employers to help have a good spreading effect.”

As suggested by Walker, the bottom line is that everyone is a learner, whether it is in tech or in human rights, and whatever the age.

"We need a major mind shift in societies. It requires a mind shift for many women and girls to think of themselves as tech learners, instead of internalising negative stereotypes they've heard about women as not belonging in certain fields. And it requires a mind shift in all people to consider these spaces as equally open to women and men. Given where jobs are going, this is key for gender equality in the next century. We need a critical mass of girls and women to be trained and to go into these fields. People have to encourage their daughters to follow these career paths and not be discouraged by the numbers. As well, we need to share solutions that work to help companies succeed in retaining women.”

Inspiring the future. The change can also come by identifying strong role models. With two women having been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the world gained a new pair of female ambassadors, proving more than ever that women in STEM can succeed. As a Code week ambassador Walker, through RTW, is embracing a similar role. Coding might just be the first step towards empowerment.