Guest post: Tackling SA’s lack of coding education

Lyndsay Lawrence, developer at BrandsEye and co-founder of non-profit code educational organisation Umonya, wrote to HumanIPO about her love for coding, female stereotypes and the start of the project.

I wrote my first program at age 15 and fell in love. From that moment on there was nothing else I could imagine doing with my life. However, coming from a family of little to no money, my dream felt too far away for comfort.

This did not stop me. I put my nose to the grindstone and worked as hard as I possibly could. The hard work paid off and I eventually received the financial assistance I needed to study computer science.

Now here I am. Successful and happy because I get to spend every day of my life doing what I love. I didn’t end up here because someone was holding my hand. No one motivated me and told me “You can do it!”

My challenges were never being a female trying to do a man’s job. My challenge was simply trying to find someone who was willing to teach me. My mind was open and willing, but there was no one there to fill it.

There is a huge lack of IT teachers in schools and many of these schools have decided to not offer the subject at all. It is viewed as a lesser subject of importance. While I know that South African schools have enough problems as it is, I do not think that disregarding IT is the answer.

This is an ongoing problem in the programming industry. There are simply not enough people willing to teach children. This is why Project Umonya was started. Umonya, which means ‘Python’ in Zulu, is a non-profit company that takes the time to teach children the skills they need to follow their dreams.

We run weekend-long courses where we teach children between the ages of 12 and 19 how to program using Python, and introduce them to the world of computer programming in general. We provide these pupils with an environment where they can freely learn and be tutored, so that they can have the tools they need to follow their dreams.

Umonya’s plans for the future include building an online and mobile community that will allow children to continue learning and experimenting after attending our course. We want kids to have the freedom to follow their dreams without lack of resources or opportunities holding them back.

Through programming, these children will one day be able to get jobs easily, as well as go on to create their own companies. We want to open their eyes, their minds and their worlds to the possibilities that lie ahead of them.

Another problem that we aim to tackle is the lack of females in the programming. Females currently hold five per cent of the positions in the industry. This is a fairly embarrassing number.

There seems to be quite an apparent divide between male and female developers and that is even more embarrassing. I respect the initiatives that are trying to do something about the problem, but I feel that they are going about it in the wrong way.

We are developers, despite gender, age or cultural background. By allowing these labels to be applied to us we are strengthening the divide.

We should stop seeing ourselves as ‘female developers’, but simply developers, each with our own personalities, likes and dislikes. When we create ‘girl friendly’ activities and groups, we implicitly reinforce stereotypes of what girls should like. By defining computer science and programming as a male trait, we are reinforcing the bias that we don’t belong in this field.

I’ve seen so much energy spent on telling girls that “they can do it, too!”, but I worry what message this is really sending. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that women need some encouragement to enter the field, but this will be achieved through breaking gender stereotypes, not enforcing them.

 By treating each and every child equally regardless of gender, race, culture or financial standing, we hope to grow this industry into one without stereotypes, bias or discrimination.

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