Actors, Not Spectators: A Project to Promote the Participation of Women in Technology Careers in Uruguay
Determined to attempt to reverse a global trend, a group of professors of the School of Engineering of the University of the Republic of Uruguay decided to create a project to encourage women’s participation in technology careers, particularly to pursue degrees related to the world of ICTs.
The project “Promoting Careers in ICT Among Teenagers in Uruguay” was born out of this impulse. This program tries to attract a greater number of female students to computer and electrical engineering degrees.
Their slogan, “Actors, not spectators”, led them to devise experiences for teenage girls to come into direct contact with various technological challenges, said Andrea Delgado, Level 4 Professor at the Computer Science Institute of the School of Engineering, University of the Republic of Uruguay and head of this project, which received the 2018 FRIDA Award in the Technology and Gender category.
How did you come up with “Promoting Careers in ICT Among Teenagers in Uruguay”?
The project began in 2016 as the result of the concern of several teachers of the Institute of Computer Sciences who noted the low enrollment rate of female students in science and technology studies, particularly the drop of women’s enrollment in Computer Science/Engineering. While more women than men enroll for university education (at the undergraduate level), the proportion of women who choose engineering is comparatively low, as the careers they prefer are predominantly related to social sciences, medicine and humanities. This gap has grown in recent years: today, women represent barely 15% of the students enrolled for Computer Sciences and 20% for Electrical Engineering. This is a global phenomenon that has been occurring in European countries, the United States, and Latin America, so several universities and organizations have implemented actions aimed at increasing the interest of young women in obtaining degrees in these areas.
Reflecting on this issue, female teachers of the Institutes of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering decided to implement specific activities aimed at adolescent women, applying the role model approach (only female teachers and advanced students present the workshops). The project slogan is “Actors, not spectators,” and participants get the chance to be in direct contact with different aspects and challenges of the area, as well as with female engineers working in the field.
What activities have you implemented to increase the interest of adolescent girls in the Information Technology degrees offered at the School of Engineering of the University of the Republic of Uruguay?
We designed and implemented three workshops on robotics, circuits and geographic software during the open day organized by the School of Engineering within the framework of International Girls in ICT Day, an event held each year on the fourth Thursday of April and promoted by the ITU (International Telecommunication Union). These workshops were conducted under the slogan “Actors, not spectators” as a way to motivate participants, and included an interactive installation at the Computer Science Institute’s media lab. The activities were designed so that the teenagers could meet and interact with female engineers working as teachers and researchers in the field, following the ‘role model’ approach.
We also worked with Bardo Científico, a scientific dissemination group that performed specific monologues on different elements and influential women in the field of ICTs.
How do you transform the composition of the student body to include more women in technology?
We believe that, while the actions implemented by the project may have an impact on teenage girls’ choice of ICT careers, there is a need for deeper interventions, both in the field of education as well as in the popularization of science and technology. In this sense, we have defined a set of courses for adolescent women titled “STEM: Women in Science and Technology” (MATE, by its Spanish acronym), which consists of a one-week course in math, programming and robotics, and circuits, as an extension to the existing workshops. We must also work on increasing the visibility of women in science and technology, including scientists and professionals working in the industry, as a way to help girls who are interested in these careers and want to work in the area realize that these degrees are not only for men.
We will monitor the specific impact of the activities that are part of the project by analyzing the enrollment in the ICT careers offered by the School of Engineering (particularly Computer Science and Electrical Engineering) and checking whether the girls who participated in the workshops (and in the STEM program once implemented) later choose these careers.
Why do you think, until now, the world of ICT has been dominated male presence?
The world of science and technology in general has historically been dominated by men, a world where women had little or no access to formal studies and scientific communities. Although the majority of undergraduate students at the University of the Republic (UDELAR) are currently women (around 64%), the careers they have chosen are mostly related to social sciences, medicine and humanities, whereas science and technology continue to be dominated by men, particularly Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. Most of the scientists known for their contributions or awards are men, and the same applies to major technology companies such as Microsoft, Apple or Facebook. This does not mean that women have not made significant contributions in these areas. However, they have not achieved the same visibility in cases such as that of Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician who created the first computer algorithm and is regarded as the first programmer in history.
The weight of gender roles and stereotypes; the identification of women with areas mostly associated with care and education; the negative stereotypes of science and technology careers (particularly computer science) that result in them being perceived as unattractive professions, mainly for women; the lack of knowledge/disinformation about the professional work that is being done in these areas; the lack of female role models; the incentives or disincentives that boys and girls receive from an early age towards science and technology, where the former tend to receive greater encouragement, for example, by playing with technology-specific toys; and strengthening girls’ confidence in their math and scientific and technological skills, are relevant factors that affect women’s low participation in these areas. In addition, these are very well-paid professions (particularly those in ICT), a factor that tends to have a greater impact on the career choices of men than on those of women.
What prompted you to apply to the FRIDA Awards?
The School of Engineering has previously applied to and won the FRIDA Award and FRIDA Grants programs with projects in different areas of technology, networks and education. When we saw the new cross-cutting category Technologies and Gender, we decided to apply with the idea that the activities we have been developing could contribute to the discussion on the gender gap in ICT in Latin America.
How do you value your participation in this LACNIC initiative? Do you think that the FRIDA Award may help you obtain additional support for the project?
We believe that this is a unique opportunity to disseminate our project, the activities we carry out, and the results we have obtained. We also hope to motivate other Latin American universities and institutions to continue reflecting and working on the existing gender gap in ICT, as well as to develop initiatives that contribute to reducing this gap, including actions for promoting these careers among adolescent women throughout the region.