Guest Column

Empowering girls one stitch at a time

2017-04-02 07:49

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Marie-José Montpetit and Mathilde Montpetit

Women in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are a rarity, but why? This is the question that policymakers and activists have been asking themselves for far too long, and for which a host of programmes, funding and laws have been implemented to answer and address.

However, even with this push to Stem, many girls are left behind because of a lack of IT education. Also, the drop-out rate for girls in computer classes is often high, even if they do well at the beginning. Why?

Economics plays a major role. Cost is one of the most oft-cited reasons to not bring computing classes to all schools. Computers have high initial costs, and need maintenance and upgrades. Even with an initial investment, within a few years they are out of date and cannot support the newest applications. Therefore, computing classes are usually found in affluent communities that can also afford to pay for all of this hardware, as well as full-time instructors. Even in those schools with a few computers, instruction is limited to a few minutes a week, often taught by a part-time instructor or volunteers. This makes the quality of the instruction unequal across schools.

Traditional gender roles and discrimination also come into play. Boys are more often told they excel in technology, and are more likely to have access to a computer and computer games than girls. They are also more likely to have community support for their education, both at school and at home.

This support is essential to learning these technical skills. For girls, their mothers and grandmothers (who are most often their caretakers) are overwhelmed by technology and do not think they have any skills to support their daughters. Traditionally, technical skills are not seen as a part of a woman’s feminine legacy.

But computing is a state of mind. It is a way of organising one’s thoughts and it is a direct descendant of traditional skills. This philosophy is what Knit2Code seeks to impart: computing without a computer; computing as a tradition.

The similarities between a knitting pattern and a computer program are stunning. Knitting uses the same type loops, conditions and concepts of function as a computer language. “Knits” and “purls” are essentially the 0 and 1 of computer programming, and when used in infinite combinations, can create as much variation as any code. Learning to knit, then, is a self-obvious stepping stone to learning to code.

Many women, of any generation, either knit or know about knitting. Without knowing, women who knit have already learned the basic concepts of computing. All while mastering one of the traditionally feminine skills.

Helping women recognise this connection is what Knit2Code aims to accomplish. Knit2Code will bring together girls of between eight and 10 and a female family member to learn, relearn or enjoy knitting and, at the same time, to learn the basics of computing. While no “real” coding will happen in the class, all students will be able to graduate to the Python computer language after the programme. The required materials are minimal: balls of yarn, knitting needles and posters. But this is enough for all the students to learn how to think of computing in a supportive environment, and be able to go home and continue their learning in knitting and computing.

Gender inequality continues to plague our societies, even as we emphasise messages of women’s empowerment. An integral part of empowering women, however, is to remind them — or teach them — that actions traditionally billed as “women’s work” are complex and important, and hold many of the same technical challenges as anything men do. Knit2Code, then, will serve a dual purpose.

First, of course, to teach girls and their female caregiver the power of computing so that technology continues to be filled with women who can design programs for all people.

Second, it will reinforce connections between generations of women, encouraging them to see themselves as agents of change.

TALK TO US

Are we doing enough to support girls to pursue maths and science careers?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword STEM and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50

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