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Women wavemakers: Practical strategies for closing the gender gap in tech

Alicia Hammond's picture
Also available in: العربية | Español
© Andela Kenya
© Andela Kenya

“Degrees get you the job, but they don’t help you to keep it.” Virginia Ndung’u, a trainee at Nairobi’s software developer accelerator Moringa School highlights one of the many challenges in ensuring students are prepared for the digital economy.

Technology is changing the skills needed for work, and increasing demand for advanced cognitive skills, socio-emotional skills and greater adaptability, as the 2019 Report on the Changing Nature of Work finds, building on the World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends. As technology becomes prevalent in other sectors, the demand for tech skills is increasing, even for entry-level positions. 

As new opportunities open, occupational sex segregation in tech is evident—extending far beyond Silicon Valley. In 30 emerging economies, men are 2.7-times more likely to work in the ICT sector than women, and 7.6-times more likely to work in ICT occupations.
 
These gaps are reflected in coding bootcamps, where women participate at lower rates than men. This matters because bootcamps are increasingly used in emerging markets to equip people with the skills needed to thrive in a changing labor market.
 
Building on previous work from the Decoding Bootcamps initiative, the new report Women Wavemakers: practical strategies for recruiting and retaining women in coding bootcamps shares insights from practitioners who are adapting recruitment strategies, designing more inclusive programs, and creating linkages to the labor market to alleviate the constraints of women and better meet their needs.
 
Rather than setting out a prescriptive pathway, Women Wavemakers draws on the experiences of 25 coding bootcamps and seven digital skills programs in 22 countries to provide a menu of options that providers and policymakers can test and refine.

When it comes to recruitment, some bootcamps aim to counteract perceptions that coding is a masculine and isolated activity by profiling female role models and leveraging women’s networks.
 
When Andela (operating in Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda) held an all-women’s bootcamp in Nairobi, its marketing used images of female developers and content that specifically targeted women. In addition to leveraging social media tools, Nairobi’s Moringa School is using face-to-face recruitment to reach women hosted by current female students or mentors.

To reduce drop-out rates, providers are working to mitigate the constraints that might limit the participation of women, including care and transportation. In Santiago, Laboratoria (operating in Chile, Peru and Mexico) provides students with a charge card for local transit services. The provider lacks resources to provide childcare, so instead connects mothers with government-provided childcare services.
 
MotherCoders, in San Francisco, provides subsidized tuition and on-site childcare thanks to donor support—although this model may be too costly for many other markets.
 
To meet the challenge described by Virginia Ndung’u—that technical knowledge isn’t by itself enough to master every aspect of a tech job—many bootcamps including Moringa focus on socio-emotional skills like collaboration, problem-solving and public speaking. In fact, experiential learning is a key characteristic of many bootcamps.
 
Particularly for women, tackling the “confidence gap” is critical. One approach being used is a dynamic peer-learning model with opportunities for giving and receiving frequent feedback; research has shown collaborative, creative, hands-on learning works best to teach girls STEM topics.
 
Finally, the report highlights ways bootcamps connect students to the labor market and showcase new skills. Madrid’s AdaLab and San Francisco-based Hackbright Academy, among others, teach professional development skills including resume and cover letter support, and help students build online portfolios. Mock interviews and professional coaches are part of career development for programs including New York’s Grace Hopper Program at Full Stack Academy and Bangalore’s Ace Hacker. At Plataforma 5 in Buenos Aires, trainees spend their final four weeks working on a real-world project.
 
But more can be done: when using bootcamps as a tool to address youth unemployment, policymakers can structure partnerships to prioritize job placement.
 
Women Wavemakers highlights the WBG’s Adolescent Girls Initiative as an example of this. First, results-based payment approaches were used to ensure training programs assumed greater responsibility for employment outcomes. Second, providers were given incentives to train more disadvantaged groups to avoid “cream skimming” (selecting the most employable candidates).
 
This and the practical examples in Women Wavemakers can help policymakers and bootcamp providers to understand the breadth of approaches being taken—and work out which might be right to test.
To that end, the WBG’s new Kenya Industry and Entrepreneurship Project will provide an opportunity for many approaches to be explored at scale. The project aims to strengthen the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem through a range of measures, including improving the effectiveness of tech incubators, accelerators and coding bootcamps.

With a strong gender lens throughout, the project also includes measures to increase the share of women who participate in these programs, thereby helping to close the gender gap in tech.

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