TechSisters brings more women into Estonian IT-scene

The global shortage of high-tech workers is hitting smaller countries harder than bigger ones. In search of a solution, ProgeTiiger (CodeTiger) and TechSisters are two Estonian initiatives that are fighting the same issue – helping to uncover hidden talent and shaping the IT workplace of the future.

In the beginning of September, a bit of news that almost initially went unnoticed took the world by storm. Magazines and technology portals such as Forbes, Wired, VentureBeat, TechCrunch and many others turned heads toward Estonia.

What caused this stir? It was the fact that the Estonian Tiger Leap Foundation had kicked off a program to start educating first-graders in the fundamental building blocks of programming. Funnily enough, the story made it to the Estonian newspapers after the foreign press started massively picking it up. Was it that normal for Estonia to do something like that?

From Tiger Leap to ProgeTiiger

In the 1990s, a public-private partnership called Tiger Leap Foundation was brought to life, the name referring to the four Asian ”tigers” (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan). Born in the heads of Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the president of Estonia, and Jaak Aaviksoo, the Minister of Education at the time, the idea was for Estonia to heavily invest in development and expansion of computer and network infrastructure in Estonia, particularly in the education sector.

Now, almost 20 years later, the program called ProgeTiiger is taking an important step forward. “We’re not trying to get firstgraders to code as such,” smiles Ave Lauringson, the program initiator and coordinator. She says that things need to be simplified and tailored to be age appropriate, so the program starts simple and rewarding tasks.

The first task it to get the teachers up to date, since it’s their confidence that will determine the extent of computer use in classes. “Around 30 teachers signed up for our first e-course where we covered the technology and methodology of how to lead kids to programming basics, several groups have signed up for similar courses in January. The interest has been huge both in the schools as well as on the parents’ side – we even have had inquiries from parents looking to put their child in a school that is part of the ProgeTiiger program,” Lauringson laughs.

The how-to of teaching kids to code

What does it take to replicate such program? “We have had to do quite a few presentations for guests outside Estonia. The main things that needs to be there is the infrastructure – something that Tiger Leap has provided for the schools in Estonia. If you have the technology, the scale of the undertaking really depends on how much human resources you want to dedicate to the program and also, whether the program is free to join or if you need to pay something to enroll. Tiger Leap has been a free program for all of Estonia, this is our definitely our advantage,” Lauringson explains.

While the youngest participants in ProgeTiiger will be contributing to the IT workforce in 15-20 years, it’s actually addressing all levels of pre-university education. This means results even sooner.

Where are the ladies?

Another likely side-effect of ProgeTiiger will be increasing the diversity in the male-dominated IT workforce. “If you want to consider more feminine routes in IT, we also have design courses,” says Lauringson. However, she’s far from considering programming to be something that’s “only for boys”.

TechSisters definitely agree. The community is made up of Estonian women (and men) that would like to see the Estonian technology seen more diverse. Born out of Rails Girls meetings (a global workshop series that is focused on teaching girls the programming language Ruby on Rails), they have extended their events from being just programming workshops to networking events and motivational gatherings.

In the UK, women make up 49% of the labour force, however they account for just 17% of IT and telecom professionals. In Estonia, the ratio is a comparable 80/20 – based on data from Skype and the gender structure of IT College students.

Why are women left out of IT?

“The reasons probably lie in gender-specific upbringing and stereotypes – boys tend to develop an interest towards technology (robots, construction toys or computers) significantly earlier than girls. For girls, you could say that the use of technology often remains on the level of looking at images of pretty things on the Internet,” explains Mari-Liis Lind, a member of TechSisters.

TechSisters plan to change that situation. “Since women’s perspective is often different from men’s, involving more women in IT would have the positive effect of bringing about more diverse ideas and solutions. Also, I’ve seen surveys actually showing women being more active Internet-users than man,” says Lind.

TechSisters was founded only recently, when the global community Rails Girls – a workshop for girls that teaches them to use the programming language Ruby on Rails – brought a lot of Estonian girls interested in IT together in Tallinn. The participants were eager to keep in contact after the event, both to polish their skills even further and to enjoy the good company – so TechSisters was born.

At their monthly gatherings, 3-4 women in IT share their experiences and view of the IT world. The goal of this is to alleviate fear for the unknown – girls and women get the chance to see what IT is all about and what it means to work in an IT company. This in turn encourages more women to consider IT as a career path.

The myth of the logical man?

“The most common misinterpretation people have of IT is that you need to be able to program – while that might not be true at all,” says Lind. “However, I also don’t agree with the statement that logical or mathematical thinking is something that is more dominant in men. Having met many brilliant women with sharp logical thinking, I think it’s more about allowing these characteristics to emerge.”

Lind believes that the educational system should be improved in a way that would allow for experimentation and making mistakes. “Kids need to be taught that it’s OK to make mistakes, because this is how you learn. You can learn much more from defeat or mistakes than you can from success. So it’s about instilling confidence and courage to try different things.”

While ProgeTiiger is a state-backed program, TechSisters is a grassroots-type community. The two initiatives share bits and pieces of ideology, although the way they go about reaching their goals is rather different. However, one of the common goals is obvious – to open up a world of choice. And this is exactly what the world needs at this time.

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This article was first published by e-estonia.com and was written for e-Estonia newsletter “The digital society”.

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About the author: e-Estonia

e-Estonia is a dedicated website about Estonia’s digital society.