UNESCO recently revealed that women still account for 28% of people pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result of the lack of female representation in STEM education, female human capital in STEM professions is underutilised.
GirlCode, a non-profit organisation that’s been creating nationwide networks of coding clubs since 2014, has been bridging this gender gap in STEM fields by sparking an interest in coding among South Africa’s young women through its annual all-female #GirlCodeHack hackathon.
The NPO has announced leading fibre provider Vuma as this year’s gold sponsor of the upcoming #GirlCodeHack, under the theme: #GenerationEquality: Realising women’s rights for an equal future, in celebration of Women’s Day.
The first GirlCode hackathon, which took place on 8 March 2021 under the theme: Break the Bias, saw 70 participants enter the event to develop solutions to counter common biases toward women in the workplace.
Natasha Chitongo and Thamsanqa Kekana, who were part of the winning team, were awarded the top prize for building a complaint-logging system that allows employees to report these incidents to HR, which can then implement remedial programmes.
“This was my first ever hackathon, and it was amazing. I didn’t know what a hackathon was before joining GirlCode in 2021 and used to think these events involved hacking into banks,” says Kekana. “Just making it through the event, from start to finish, is a considerable achievement because it’s a mental strength test. Everyone who took part should be proud of themselves.”
Kekana, an IT graduate and cybersecurity intern at FNB, says the entire GirlCode experience has expanded her coding knowledge. She believes programmes like these are crucial for South African females because they allow them to enter the STEM industry and break common misconceptions that there isn’t any room for females in these fields.
Like Kekana, this was also Natasha Chitongo’s first hackathon.
“I went through a mixture of excitement and nerves, but mostly eagerness to learn and network with like-minded young women in the STEM industry, including potential employers. The event was great, and we somehow managed to stay up and code for 24 hours,” says Chitongo. “I also appreciate how the event featured mentors who guided us throughout the process and grilled us if our idea didn’t make sense. Best of all, I also made great friends in addition to all the knowledge and insights I gained.”
Chitongo got her first taste of the IT industry when she joined GirlCode in 2021 after seeing a software engineering job opportunity she couldn’t miss. She soon fell in love with the field and connected with other professionals from multiple corporates who later became her mentors and guided her IT career.
“GirlCode kick-started my career in programming by helping me get a six-month internship at an IT company. This opportunity refined all the skills and knowledge I had gained from the programme,” adds Chitongo.
Chitongo, whose vision is to become a Full Stack Developer one day, says initiatives like GirlCode are a lifeline for young women because they open up opportunities in STEM fields. In addition, she says they connect young women to mentors and upskill them in hard and soft skills like CV writing, EQ, and interview skills, all of which set them up for successful careers in STEM fields.
“GirlCode’s hackathons showcase female tech talent in South Africa, empower young girls to consider a career in technology, and encourage local companies to think about how they can support the development of women in tech,” says Taylor Kwong, CSI Manager at Vuma. “Vuma realised that by partnering with GirlCode as a gold sponsor, we could expose even more young women to the software industry and help eliminate this gender gap.”
The next #GirlCodeHack will be in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban from 6-7 August 2022. The event is open to female IT students (1st – 4th years) and recent female graduates, with a grand prize of R60,000 for the winning team.