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Starting the María de Maeztu Actions on Gender & ICT

(Details on our actions on gender and STEM are available at https://www.upf.edu/web/mdm-dtic/gender-and-ict )

María de Maeztu Whitney is best known for her efforts in supporting the access of women to higher education in Spain in early-mid 20th century (see documentary in spanish here). Even if nowadays the access of women to higher education is no longer an issue, a generally unknown fact is that the presence of women in engineering studies is decreasing over time.

On a quick search over Internet, it is easy to find a large number of articles and resources addressing this topic, and the evidence that most industrial and academic centers are since long taking steps to fight this decreasing participation of women in technology, paradoxically in a time when technology is becoming pervasive. Articles such as

- How to Attract Female Engineers (The New York Times, 28/04/2015)

- Why It's Crucial to Get More Women Into Science (National Geographic, 08/11/2014)

- ¿Cómo motivar a las niñas a estudiar tecnología, matemáticas o una ingeniería? (Technonews, entry by Helena Ramalhinho (UPF), 05/02/2015)

- What Can Be Done About Gender Diversity in Computing?: A Lot! (Moshe Y. Vardi, Communications of the ACM, Vol. 58 No. 10, Page 5)

provide valuable hints on ways to act towards a more balanced representation in ICT.

 

Not surprisingly, several individuals at DTIC-UPF were more or less spontaneously taking  steps in this same direction, including:

- the promotion of the participation of our researchers and students in femaly-only support programs (such as the Anita Borg grants - with our first winner and 2 finalists since then)

  - hosting the meetings and supporting the visibility of PyladiesBCNa group of female developers in Python who run a programming club aimed at "helping more women become active participants and leaders in the Python open-source community" (one of the promoters, Laura Pérez Mayos, is a former student in our Masters in Interactive Intelligent Systems and Computer Vision, and now a research assistant in our NLP group)

- the Gender and Science Journal Club, promoted autonomously by researchers in the Center for Brain and Cognition in our Department, started running dedicated seminars to discuss several aspects associated to the topic

- our Unit of Teaching Quality and Innovation, directed by Davinia Hernández-Leo, Serra Húnter Professor at DTIC-UPF and leader of the Technology Enhanced Learning Section of the Interactive Technologies Group, started a study in the Gender Perspective in our engineering degrees

- Emilia Gómez, Serra Húnter Professor at DTIC-UPF and leader of the Music Information Retrieval Lab at the Music Technology Group in our Department, has been participating and now driving actions in the Music Information Retrieval field (such as WIMIR) and recently started a blog which compiles information on women & ICT

- driven by Susan Ferreira (Anita Borg finalist), former PhD student at the Interactive Technologies Group, we organised the first (modest) activities in the framework of the Anita Borg Celebration Week in Barcelona. Our participation in these activities grew significantly this year with the second UPF #GirlsHack and our first #WomeninLab.

 

As these are the actions most significantly pushed in the context of the María de Maeztu program, we will ellaborate a bit more on them. We had launched our first #GirlsHack at UPF in November 2015, in cooperation with the group of women , and run a second one in March 2016. 

These events served to untap the huge potential and interest in our community in the topic (with strong variations - from people very committed with the topic of fostering the participation of girls in technology, while others interested in bringing technology closer to school students, irrespective of their gender). Without any specific institutional support, these 2 events served to mobilise over 60 volunteers across all the different types of members at our department (undergraduate and postgraduate students, alumni, researchers from different departments - not just ours, administrative staff, external collaborators, even providers!) who designed and conducted more than 30 free workshops (including scratch, virtual reality, robotics, interactive storytelling, arduino, 3D printing, mobile app design, Lego NXT)  for girls (and their families) between 7 - 17 years old and have had in total over 1.000 people coming around, getting a (sometimes first) experience with technology, in an all-girl environment.

 

 

A very interesting effect is that of a girl-only event in the families. When events are organised at university around robotics, programming, etc for kids, the audience is mostly made by boys and their families. However, just by making it explicit that technology is for girls, the 250 tickets are sold out in few days.  Below 12 years old, the parents are typically the ones deciding if they join these activities, and they seem to link girls (their daughters) and technology only when the case is explicitly made!

In the first edition we also confirmed that it becomes more challenging to attract girls as they grow (a rather intuitive result). To avoid the fact that families of the younger girls could be "blocking" the access of the older (it is in the end a nice free event on a sunday morning, perfect for families seeking activities to do with their kids), we separated the workshops in 2 age ranges (7-12, 12-17). This had the desired effect. Tickets for girls under 12 sold out in hours, though those for girls over 12 also sold out, but after several days.

The second change after the first event was to generate the track #WomeninLab for women over 16y, in order to reach the older ones (those who are already in their way to ICT studies). This track, in addition to workshops, included talks by female professionals working at Google (need a link? :-)), Eurecat, UPF and Do-it-yourself Bio Barcelona, and the possibility to talk to more than 30 female professionals, trying to set the seed for a future larger-scale mentoring program. We had a truly enthusiastic reaction from female professionals in several centers (see the impressive list here) who mentored young women interested or already following ICT studies. We expect this track to grow and consolidate in the future with new sessions.

Future challenges include to consolidate and increase the internal and external support for these actions (the second edition of #GirlsHack was for instance possible thanks to the financial support from some of our collaborators: Google, Institut Català de les Dones, Accenture and Eurecat, in addition to our María de Maeztu program - even if the value of the high-quality contribution by all the volunteers has no price, the workshops have a cost); evaluate if these one-day activities have indeed an effect in the mid-term; which are the follow-up activities which can further support those aims (such as giving more visibility among girls to several exceptional initiatives in town such as Code clubs,  or running our own activities such as longer courses -for instance, we are now closing details for a girl-only summer course on 3D printing within the UPF Campus Junior program); increase our network of collaborations with similar programs (such as the Women in Science Office at CNIO in Madrid - working on similar challenges in an environment as life sciences which may have shared problems even if the initial participation of women at university is higher than that of men! - the leaky pipeline takes place just later in time in their case?) and other novel actions currently under discussion.

Reshma Saujani claims in her TED talk that "We're raising our girls to be perfect, and we're raising our boys to be brave". Is this a factor also linked to a decreased interest in STEM careers?

 

To know more:

Get to know the Transversal Actions at the María de Maeztu Strategic Research Program, including Gender and ICT