Czechitas: Girls and IT do get along!

6. October 2020
When it comes to the size of its target group, its team, its level of professionalism, and its varied portfolio, Czechitas is a globally unique project – no question. This non-profit organization, established in Brno six years ago, takes the already slightly open door to IT for women and children and blows it wide open. And it is now spreading to other Czech cities, as well. We sat down with Bára Bühnová, one of its co-founders, to talk about what the organization offers to women and what often needlessly keeps that door closed to them.
Czechitas: Girls and IT do get along!

Czechitas are IT courses designated primarily for women. First, let’s provide some context for the readers: In the Czech Republic, there’s a huge demand for IT specialists, and only a small percentage of them are women. In the 1980s, however, 37% of IT specialists were women, while today it’s only around 9%. What’s happened there?

The answer is pretty simple, actually: in the last four decades, the IT discipline has become incredibly prestigious, which – simply put – discouraged a lot of women, and this is confirmed by various studies from other countries that monitor the number of women applying for university studies. The more prestigious the discipline, the more applicants it receives. At the same time, though, the percentage of women applying for these disciplines drops. A prestigious discipline, and subsequently better salary, give people the impression that it’s harder to pass the entrance exams and that it’s only for the chosen ones. And once the percentage of women working in a discipline drops below a certain level, other factors emerge as well.

Where does this distrust come from? Is it because of the way women are brought up or by some kind of natural settings in them?
Our society tends to raise girls to be conscientious and boys to be courageous. However, this means that girls tend to avoid situations in which they could make a mistake. Boys, on the other hand, often make mistakes, but they fix them and thus learn things for which there are no precise guidelines. And you can’t get into the IT sector without making some mistakes! After all, the process of coding is a sort of debugging: you code something, find a mistake/bug, fix it, continue, make more mistakes/bugs, fix them... over and over again. But if you are brought up to be scared of making mistakes and to rather give up than make them, this can be a huge obstacle for you. In Czechitas, we work hard on removing this obstacle and try to help women realize that mistakes aren’t their enemies.

Was this the main trigger that made a group of women in 2014 decide to debunk the myths related to the IT world in our society?
The aim of this initiative was to help women open the door to the world of IT: to show them what IT is, so they can try out its basics to see if it’s something they’d enjoy. Among the first, most frequent barriers is the false perception of what the IT world actually is. Women don’t know if it can satisfy and make them happy, what kind of job they’d do, and – mainly – it makes them doubt themselves and their potential. Besides, they see only a few women working in this discipline, which worries them even further: they start to think such an environment will be unpleasant for them, they won’t enjoy the job, and they’ll fail. We try to debunk these myths and let them try it themselves. And if they become interested, they can continue with us and even further educate themselves to eventually get a job in the IT world.

But that’s about women who – even later in their lives – find the courage to try and make it in the IT world. Where do we lose the young girls who haven’t created those prejudices yet?
A Europe-wide survey by Microsoft showed that most girls lost interest in IT as teenagers, roughly between twelve and fifteen years of age. The main problems are that Czech girls aren’t supported by their families, have no female role models, and aren’t involved in the IT world or see a practical use that they find interesting. Let’s talk about that last reason some more; according to research, girls naturally focus on things they consider meaningful. They see a goal and use their means to achieve it. When they are little, these goals aren’t necessarily related to technology, but tech-related challenges start to present themselves as the girls get older. At that point, it may be harder for them to handle the complexity, as the learning curve is a bit slower. 

Boys, on the other hand, approach IT as more of a game from a very young age. They don’t want to solve problems using IT; they want to play. An ideal IT expert combines both approaches, though, and that’s why it’s important to show girls that they belong in the IT world and help them open the door when they are afraid they’ve already missed their chance. Girls can be as successful as boys – they just need to be attracted in a different way to get interested in IT.

Let’s pretend we believe the myth which says that you need to have some special prerequisites in order to learn to code. Would you disprove it? And can just anybody handle it? Not only women, but less technically-skilled men as well.
I like to compare information technologies to medical care, so I would ask if really anybody can treat their own wounds. Well, depends on the wound; anybody can put a BandAid on a wound, and anybody can program basic stuff, as well. However, like medical care, IT contains lots of professions and lots of various issues that you can deal with. People often think that all IT guys are automatically coders. Only a few of them are. I daresay that most IT experts only code on rare occasions, if ever. They have other roles. And, again, it’s the same as in medical care: not every doctor is a surgeon. So it always depends on the task. Anybody can get familiar with some insight into IT and coding. After all, even kids confirm this, as they normally do this on their own without their parents’ assistance.

Now, let’s talk about the attendees of your courses – women and children. Men aren’t allowed?
They are, but we do focus on women and children. Let me explain why. Right now, attendees are asked to cover one third of the course costs, while the remaining two thirds are covered by sponsors and various grants. If we offer our courses to everybody, we wouldn’t be able to satisfy the demand. That’s why we give priority to women, and offer the courses to men only if there are some places left. And that’s a rare occurrence. At the moment, even the hundreds of courses we offer per year aren’t enough to satisfy the demand from women. Unfortunately, our limited capacities mean we can’t afford to offer courses for men. And the same goes for courses for foreigners. We open courses in English as well, but these are immediately filled by Czechs – that’s how large the demand is.

Czechitas is a community bringing together (mainly) women and children who’d like to discover the world of IT and also volunteers to help them. Rather than professional lecturers, these experts work in various IT positions and share their knowledge and skills in their leisure time. Currently, Czechitas has 50 permanent employees, over 500 volunteers, and centres in eight cities all over the Czech Republic. The educational centre in Brno, established thanks to the support of CTP, was opened in 2019 and includes the FabLab digital workshop.

Over a hundred companies are involved in Czechitas in the Czech Republic. How does this cooperation work?
We operate community education centres here in Brno and in Prague. And our community is really big, with 16 strategic and general partners. At the same time, another one hundred companies are involved in our activities in the regions where we don’t have our own classrooms yet (unlike in Brno and Prague), offering their own spaces for our lessons. This allows over 10 thousand women and several thousand children to study with us every year. In our portfolio, we’ve designated areas that our three-month digital academy will cover. The academy makes it so that even a complete beginner will have the skills necessary to assume a junior or pre-junior position in a company cooperating with us. A person at this stage still has a lot to learn, but they may be already employed and grow in their new position. We’re happy to have such partners who support our idea and are capable of working with beginners. In return, they get a person strongly interested in their own growth and IT in general. These people are more than capable of learning new things and are willing to devote the necessary energy to it, so they are often very valuable for the companies, even if their technical and professional knowledge are still rather low.

Your centre in Brno includes the FabLab digital workshop: what do you do there? And did you choose the machines specifically for women?
Under JIC, the FabLab does a lot of activities where you can get hands-on experience with innovations in the production process while using various technologies. And we’re very happy to have one of its three Brno branches in Czechitas! Naturally, there are several 3D printers, but also a T-shirt printing machine and a sewing machine, all of which women are very interested in. It became very popular with girls from high schools during the summer IT school, as they had an opportunity to design some colourful embroidery, such as butterflies, and watch the machine create it based on their design.

You teach at Masaryk University where you used to study. Back in those days, only 5% of IT students were women; has that number improved?
When girls decide on IT and choose a school to study at, they prefer more general universities (Masaryk University, in our case) where they have an opportunity to combine their study program with other, more general courses, rather than to a technology university (Brno University of Technology). Again, they think the technology university would be harder or too technical. At the Faculty of Information Technology at BUT, the percentage of women studying IT programs is still low, while Masaryk University’s Faculty of Informatics is a bit better, with 20% of its students being female.

However, this fear of technologies is ungrounded; you can fall in love with IT even if you aren’t that attracted to technologies. When I started my studies, I didn’t find computers or any other devices around me appealing; I clearly saw the options they provide us with, though. And what’s IT good for these days? It makes our work more efficient and innovates all kinds of disciplines. I like to innovate, but I’m not too excited about computers. I don’t even have a great computer because I don’t need one. In order to innovate, I need inspiring people as well as an environment where we can come up with new things. After all, developing huge software systems is about getting to understand what the individual systems do and to understand which parts can be integrated into a new system. This job is about getting to understand and putting together things somebody else has designed in most cases. And this is something women often excel at.

At the university, your students are mostly men, whereas at Czechitas courses you meet mainly women. What would you say the main difference is in terms of solving various problems: have you noticed any substantial difference in their mindsets?
I often see girls take the easiest way to solve a problem and use modern, more complex technologies only when absolutely necessary. This could make them look like they avoid complex things, but it’s not like that at all! If I have an objective and choose the simplest possible way to achieve it, it’s pretty smart. And if the objective requires that difficult means are used to achieve it, then women are just incredible. The things they manage to get familiar with and make work! At the Czechitas digital academy, there was a team of girls that taught themselves machine learning, simply because the project required it. However, they never would have learnt it if the project hadn’t required it. They just need to see it makes sense to learn difficult things and not do it just to play, fine-tune, or polish them. Most girls won’t get interested in this, while a lot of boys will. Yet neither approach is wrong; we just need to learn to understand both of them in order to be able to appreciate them and create better teams together.

You offer an incredible number of courses: which one would you recommend to a beginner who has no idea about the world of IT?
Well, it’d be our one-day tryout courses then; we’re glad to see anyone taking them, especially those who feel the world of IT isn’t really their thing. Women often tell us “I came to make sure this isn’t my thing at all.”, only to leave excited to spend the weekend coding! And it’s not only about coding – sometimes a different aspect catches their attention, such as UX. User experience is a very important part of IT. Today, products aren’t sold by advertising anymore, and companies need to win the customers’ hearts over by making their systems easy to use. UX involves thinking deeply about user experience. Girls often enjoy this type of thinking. And here we can see a major technical factor: they need to know what’s really happening – what’s real and what’s not. And that’s their motivation to learn complex technical things.

What are the most frequent myths about women working in IT?
I often hear people say “Girls wouldn’t like to sit at a computer all day, right?”. Yeah, right, that’s why all the accountants are men, haha. Look at anybody who works with tables in Excel: most of them are women and they spend most of their days at the computer, optimizing, making things more efficient, looking for new approaches, solving problems. Something went wrong, something needs to be re-invoiced, something needs to be resolved. They’re all about “problem solving” and great at it! They learn to understand very complex problems and resolve them, so all these women have the perfect prerequisites to work in IT. In fact, I’ll put it this way: they have been doing a job in IT for a very long time, only it’s called something else and their salary is one third or one quarter of what it would be in IT. However, the essence of their job isn’t different to coding at all. And there are lots of more interesting opportunities than just coding in IT!

Is there any other commonly useful IT skill that women seem to possess naturally? 
Definitely empathy. And communication. Problems in the IT world are now so complex that they require teams of people, not just individuals. And these people need to understand each other, understand how others think, understand their needs and comprehend what they are thinking when they say something: that’s not always the same thing, right? The skill set required to become successful at a number of roles in the IT world is actually based on characteristics that are very natural for women. They just have no idea it’s what could help them break through. And in Czechitas we’ll keep helping them realize it.

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