Published on March 20th, 2020
A blog post by Iago Bojczuk and Pedro Torres
As the GMTaC Lab led the SITS-Brazil workshop at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) and the State University of Southwestern Bahia (UESB) in January 2020, our MIT team learned about a student-led project that was being developed to tackle the lack of female representation in Computer Science in the city of Vitória da Conquista. The Code Ladies, as the project is called by its founders, emerged from the initiative of two women Computer Science undergraduate students at UESB. Despite demonstrating high intellectual achievement and academic promise, these women explained that they faced or observed prejudice on the part of their CS colleagues simply because they were women.
Figure 1. Logo of the Code Ladies project at UESB
Formed by UESB students, Natalia Pinheiro and Jenifer de Jesus Jang, the idea behind Code Ladies was initially to create an in-person event to celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a global event held by UNESCO and UN Women since 2015. However, UESB students subsequently took a different approach in an effort to ensure a stronger, long-term impact in the Bahian communities. They decided to design a project that would enable other UESB female students to teach programming languages in their communities, and thus encourage girls’ involvement in natural sciences, engineering, and especially in computer science. Both Natalia and Jenifer are interested in human-computer interaction (HCI), digital inclusion, and feminism, relevant topics that have shaped their interest in having more Brazilian women involved in computer science.
Jenifer de Jesus Jang and Natalia Pinheiro on the campus of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). Photo provided by Natalia Pinheiro, 2020.
In fact, the number of female students seeking to major in STEM-related subjects such as computer science, math, physics, engineering, and others, has progressed very little in Brazil over the years. According to data from Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira (INEP), an agency connected to the Brazilian Ministry of Education, the number of computer science undergraduate programs grew 586% in the last 24 years in Brazil. However, the percentage of women enrolling in CS undergraduate programs dropped from 34.8% to 15.5%. In the United States, the unequal training of women and men in CS fields has generated challenging workforce conditions. According to Code.org, in 2020, the U.S. is expected to have 1.4 million vacancies in the fields of IT and a labor deficit of around 1 million professionals.
Code Ladies has additional significance in Brazil’s northeastern region, which historically has been socially marginalized and disadvantaged. Recently, however, the Bahia region has started to gain traction in the IT field, with an array of startups emerging. Gender inclusion, coupled with government-led policy frameworks and student- and teacher-led initiatives, therefore, have crucial potential to change and help to augment and equalize the IT workforce in Bahia.
According to UESB Computer Science Professors Cátia Khouri and Maísa Lopes, “Exposing these [Bahian] girls to the university before they have chosen a major or career path opens up their horizons and increases the possibility that they will find themselves in a profession that they might not even have considered otherwise.” Khouri and Lopes also indicate that girls’ early contact with the academic community increases their interest in higher education and helps to open possible career paths. Brazil’s public universities have recently changed the entry barriers that have long prevented certain social groups from enrolling in higher education. Khouri and Lopes suggest, “In some circumstances, the academic environment they [girls] were being educated ends up replicating some societal norms that tend to exclude women from engaging in STEM-related subjects or other research-related roles.”
UESB Professors Kátia Khouri and Maísa Lopes during their activity on computation thinking in the first week of SITS-Brazil. Photo by GMTaC Research assistant Iago Bojczuk, 2020.
As a student-led initiative, Code Ladies is still in its early phases, but already shows much promise for educating diverse communities of female students in Vitória da Conquista, Bahia and other neighboring cities. Given that the Department of Computer science at UESB has only a few female faculty teaching CS-related courses, Code Ladies also opens up new forums for discussion of the importance of gender equality in the department.
Professors Khouri and Lopes emphasized how proud they are to see student-led initiatives focusing on helping other women achieve their goals through education, science, and technology. They stressed the importance of equitable representation and how the impact of extracurricular activities are paramount in public universities in Brazil, which often face cuts in their budgets for anything beyond the fixed curriculum. “We believe that UESB girls can act as multipliers and collaborate in the dissemination of a creative mind that is not only focused on technology, but that is also deeply grounded on social issues that our community may need.”
To explore how Code Ladies plans to impact the community and encourage the participation of women in CS, we interviewed Natalia and Jenifer to find out more about their creative and bold initiative.
Can you tell us what motivated you to develop Code Ladies?
This idea emerged when we were discussing ideas of projects we could put forth to celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a global event implemented by UNESCO and UN Women since 2015, in collaboration with intergovernmental agencies and institutions, as well as civil society partners. The day’s purpose is to promote full and equal access to participation in science for women and girls, so we certainly did not want this important day to go unnoticed. So we got together and discussed establishing a program that would inspire high school girls in the city of Vitória da Conquista, Bahia. Another reason that motivated us to create Code Ladies was to inspire Bahian girls to pursue computer science, and STEM more broadly. Most importantly, we wanted to show high school girls that they can understand the power they can have in their hands, and thus feel empowered to do anything they set their minds to.
Could you talk a little about the class curriculum and how you prepared this course?
Before rolling out this program, we first contacted other students and professors from UESB’s Department of Computer Science to give us some guidance. After consulting with many people, we decided to create a sisterhood-like environment so we could foster a real community that could create a space so that students, like us, could teach each one another how to shine in the CS field and inspire other girls to do the same. The courses will be one-week long, and the curriculum include topics as diverse as web development (HTML5 and CSS3), 3D modeling (SketchUp), block programming (Scratch), and programming (C ++), all at the beginner’s level. In order to recruit students, we plan to stop by at different schools in Vitória da Conquista and share more information about the application process, given that we only have 20 spots as we iterate the first version of Code Ladies.
What kind of impact do you hope to create with Code Ladies in the city of Vitória da Conquista and in the state of Bahia, in general?
We do not want Code Ladies to be just an isolated program that takes place exclusively in Vitória da Conquista. Instead, we envision it becoming a broader concept, a kind of collective and community-driven project; one that can be adapted to other cities in the state of Bahia and beyond. In other words, we want this to reach other parts of Brazil that could also benefit from what we are proposing, and the kind of feminist empowerment in relation to learning CS and IT fields. We want girls in the region to know that they can be anywhere and become whatever they envision, pursuing careers in science and technology and other typically male-dominated fields. The idea is that by forging that kind of empowerment, the next generation of women will have more role models to guide their inspirations and show them some of the exciting things they can achieve.
How can other students, NGOs, or teachers support your project?
For this first iteration of the program, we expect that students come with great enthusiasm so they can support us not only by believing in the overall goal we intend to achieve, in terms of computer science education and feminist empowerment, but also by being prepared to pass on to others what they have learned with us. By building a collaborative structure, we hope our project can continue to grow. At this point, any help from NGOs, institutions or teachers is welcome. Whether infrastructure, dissemination, intellectual, or financial support, etc., we are open to new collaborations so that our project can continue expanding.
In bringing this project to real life, what have been the biggest difficulties you have encountered along the way?
One of the major difficulties we have faced has to do with the dominant insecurity that most female students feel when learning coding for the first time. Most of them tend to feel insecure and incapable of learning computational thinking, given that most of them first learn about programming only upon starting college. This is often the case because, from an early age, girls are often not socialized or encouraged to invent, create, or challenge themselves in the same ways as boys. In other words, they are not stimulated to believe in themselves, which is a recurring problem for those dealing with computer coding for the first time. Another barrier has to do with the fact that we lack infrastructure to provide an ideal space for computational exploration and experimentation. Our desire was to reach as many girls as possible, but, unfortunately, the computer labs we have access to at UESB lack capacity for that.
Could you comment on the support that UESB and its faculty gave you? Could you share a specific moment that you felt empowered to do something for other women in your community?
UESB Professors Alzira Ferreira, Cátia Khouri, and Maisa Lopes have always been an example of strong and intelligent women in the CS field. Moreover, they have always supported us in our projects and encouraged us to persist, despite all adversities. A few years ago, when a group of women? students participated in a programming marathon and ended up not getting good placement, Professor Lopes told them that they should not feel sad –– quite the contrary: just being there was already a quite big step. This was encouraging and supportive and we need more of this kind of attitude from all faculty.
How do you think your participation in SITS-Brazil may help with your Code Ladies project? What is your vision for this project for the coming years?
In summary, we would like to impact the girls in our community in the same way that professors and the MIT facilitators touched us; inspire others similar to how they inspired us and, of course, teach others what we have learned. In addition, the applied methodologies that we emphasized in the two weeks of SITS-Brazil have made us absorb as much knowledge as possible, and we will definitely adhere to these as we move forward with Code Ladies. In the short term, we definitely want to establish partnerships that allow the event to expand and reach as many girls from Vitória da Conquista as possible. In the long run, we hope that this project will reach girls from all states of Brazil and, maybe, different countries…who knows? There are many girls around the world who need a friendly voice that encourages them to move on, and we want to make sure they have that voice.
What suggestions do you have for other female students from other parts of the world who want to develop similar projects? What is your dream for Brazil?
Go ahead. Believe in your potential. Persist, even in the face of adversity. This is a dream worth following. Inspire another woman’s life. One, ten, or even thousands. But inspire a woman and make her realize and believe that she can be anything she wants. We need to deconstruct certain social paradigms that mandate that women should be at home, taking care of their children; instead, we want other women to think that a woman’s place is where she wants to be. Therefore, our dream is that we women in Brazil feel compelled to speak and be heard so we can have more just gender relations in our society and economy.
Iago Bojczuk is a Lemann Fellow and a second-year graduate student in Comparative Media Studies at MIT. His research interests include global media, ICT4D, human-computer interaction, education, and mobile media in Brazil.
Pedro Torres is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in journalism at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil. His research interests lie in the intersection of journalism, technology, politics and literature. During SITS-Brazil, he volunteered as a journalist.