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Brussels initiative helps girls worldwide defy ICT stereotypes
Picture an engineer, a scientist or a doctor. What’s the first image that pops into your mind? Is it a man or a woman? If you see the former every time, you’re not alone.
Women account for a small fraction of those employed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the so-called Stem sectors. What’s more, they often leave the profession long before their male counterparts.
A recent study found that women represent just 7% of the cyber-security workforce in Europe. Another report showed that women take up only 9% of all IT leadership roles in the world.
One local organisation is trying to change that, with the help of some of the biggest names in science and technology. Greenlight4Girls, a Brussels-based project with a global reach, was founded in 2010 by Melissa Rancourt, an American engineer who was previously head of faculty at the Boston University Brussels campus.
The association teams up with science and tech firms, which welcome girls between 11 and 15 years old for afternoons of interactive workshops. Rancourt founded the organisation after “a moment of frustration,” having spent more than 20 years of her life encouraging women to enter these fields.
“I was far from the only one doing so,” she says, “but despite the great intentions, it wasn’t working. The percentage of women in these fields wasn’t changing; it was stagnating. I needed to take a different approach.”
One evening in 2010, Rancourt sent an email to 100 people working in science and tech around the world, asking them about the essential components in encouraging girls to get into science. Since then, the initiative has expanded to cover six continents and has been hosted by the likes of Nasa and Oxford University.
When setting up the organisation, Melissa drew on her own experience, recalling the “hands-on” workshops that inspired her as a youngster. It is this element that remains a consistent feature of a Greenlight4Girls afternoon.
A recent event in Diegem, Flemish Brabant – hosted by cyber-security firm Cisco – saw the girls engage in a coding session and one-to-one “speed meet” sessions with employees. They also learned how to develop their own electronic circuits and took part in a video-technology exercise based on the movie The Martian.
At the end of the day, they each received a certificate as a Cisco Certified Future Engineer. According to Aurelia Takacs of Cisco, and a global ambassador for Greenlight4Girls, the goal of the workshops is to make it as hands-on and as fun as possible.
“We don’t want someone standing there and lecturing them,” she says. “We want to break down stereotypes that technology is boring, or just for men.”
Cisco also works with Greenlight4Girls as part of its own annual Girls Power Tech initiative, in which the company partners with local NGOs to celebrate the international Girls In ICT day.
As part of the event, Cisco sent an invite girls aged between 10 and 15 from the Association of Young Moroccans in Molenbeek. The sessions, says Takacs, have proven to be an eye-opening experience for the participants. Working with younger girls, she adds, is what makes the project so appealing.
“We’ve worked with a lot with youngsters at university and secondary school levels, but they already have an idea of what jobs they want to do,” she explains. “It may be too late when they’re at that level, but with girls that are younger – we can still inspire them.”
The age between 11 and 15 is crucial, Takacs continues, because during this period, girls’ confidence often plummets. “Wherever you are, whatever the differences are, the issues around girls are the same – they feel like they are being boxed in.”
Nevertheless, with a reach that stretches from Brussels to Lagos and New Delhi, local contexts are important, she says, and girls of all backgrounds are welcome. “There are common themes, but we look at what’s going on in a specific place.”
In Belgium, this can be as simple as making sure that events cater to Brussels’ French and Dutch-speaking populations, as they did at Cisco’s event. In more impoverished areas, the teams provide lunch.
Rancourt has found that all of the girls share a lack of self-confidence, even in places like San Francisco, home to the Silicon Valley. Over time, she became encouraged again by seeing how quickly the mentality changes.
Reach for the stars
“It’s amazing how much you can achieve in a short period of time,” she says. “At a recent event in Belgium, we asked how many of the girls had been to one of our events before. Half the hands were in the air.”
And while the enthusiasm of these returnees is hard to beat, some of the best feedback has come from their parents. Rancourt has received emails from concerned mums and dads who told her they couldn’t get their daughters to take off their lab coats.
With growing interest, Greenlight4Girls has been able to fund a scholarship programme that provides university-level education in Stem fields to girls in impoverished areas. As for future plans, Rancourt says she’s always happy for more companies to get in touch. She’s currently in talks with Nokia about organising a workshop in Antwerp.
For all her aspirations, Rancourt is thrilled with what Greenlight4Girls has achieved so far, from seeing how quickly girls defy stereotypes to helping them – quite literally in the case of Nasa – reach for the stars.