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Costa Rica’s hi-tech industry is booming: in 2013, exports of electronics and medical equipment accounted for more than a quarter of total exports, while agricultural produce such as bananas and other fruit made up barely 16 per cent. Last year, the then-president Laura Chinchilla Miranda declared the electronics hardware and computer software sector a national priority.
But despite such pledges from a female leader, women make up just a fifth of workers in this field. A cooperative called Sulá Batsú aims to change this by supporting women who aspire to careers in information and communications technology (ICT). Kemly Camacho Jiménez, the cooperative’s president, talks to SciDev.Net about the group’s different initiatives — including Costa Rica’s first software hackathon for women.
One way Sulá Batsú wants to help women start tech careers is through hackathons. Can you tell me more about the First Women’s Hackathon project last year?
We had 40 women participating in nine teams. We wanted to create a place for women to prove to themselves that they can create knowledge. The hackathon is one of our strategies to try to develop the women’s technical, leadership and entrepreneurial abilities.
During the hackathon, the teams developed prototype bits of software and, afterwards, each group launched its own start-up. Since then, we have continued supporting them, because our aim is to create an ICT cluster led by women in rural Costa Rica.
What kind of things did the women come up with?
One of the teams, called TechnoWomen, produced a special education app for touchscreen tablets. The app helps boys and girls with autism, Asperger’s syndrome and other learning disabilities to increase their communication with families and teachers. It uses photographs from the children’s communities — the churches, markets and homes — to improve the children’s communication in their daily life.
TechnoWomen have shared their app with special education schools to improve the product’s functionality. They have developed a business plan and are ready to launch soon. The project is part of a wider Sulá Batsú programme called TIC-as: TIC means ICT in Spanish and, in Costa Rica, women are known as ‘Ticas’.
Do many people in Costa Rica work in ICT?
At the moment, there are a lot of opportunities in the ICT sector, but these opportunities are concentrated in urban areas and are mostly for men, and in particular white men.
We work in the northern part of Costa Rica, near some universities there that teach ICT courses. These universities have options for poorer students to study, including scholarships and cheap housing. But mostly it is men who take advantage of these.
We want to focus on women who come to the universities or high schools to study ICT, and support them to continue studying. Because a lot of women drop out.
Can you tell me more about the stereotypes of girls and computers in Costa Rica? Is this a reason why many leave ICT even before starting their career?
The problem is that, even on university courses, the ratio is 20 per cent women to 80 per cent men. The same goes for ICT-related enterprises, everywhere the ratio is 80:20. We want to break this ratio.
If we really want to make change, we need to work with all ages. That’s why we have projects for girls aged ten to 14. This April, we launched a project called Girls and Technology Clubs. We organise workshops for girls in public libraries and university spaces to get them involved from an early age.
Something we have discovered from this project is that we also have to work with their father, mother and teachers. We can do many things with the girls, but if stereotypes at home don’t change, it’s very difficult. From the age of ten they are in charge of some home duties, and from 12 years old they have to try to be “beautiful girls”. That’s why we work a lot with the communities using art and culture to try to change stereotypes.
How has your own experience contributed to your efforts?
I am a computer engineer and I also teach computer courses at the University of Costa Rica. I began my degree at a time when there were more women in computer engineering than there are now. In the 1980s, it was half and half when we began the course. The problem was that many women dropped out. When I finished my course, I was the only woman left.
I remember the harsh environment very well. The way the teachers approached the class was really rude. They would try to scare us into thinking we would fail. I feel like women take all these things very differently to men. I didn’t eat well and had a lot of sleepless nights. You have to be tough to continue with courses in those circumstances, but I don’t think it needs to be like that. It doesn’t need to be so harsh.
Do you try to do things differently with your students these days?
I try and I think my colleagues also understand that you don’t need to be mean to demonstrate that your course is good. The old teachers thought that all the computer courses were for geniuses, which is not true at all. I think you have to be strict and rigorous, but that doesn’t mean that you have to scare your students.
Many women who work in ICT in Costa Rica end up in the public sector. What other types of ICT jobs are there in the country?
There are a lot of opportunities in the private sector. Many of the big companies have hubs here: Microsoft, Intel, Hewlett Packard and IBM. There are really big possibilities, such as coding, project management, quality analysis, informatics, auditing and network administration.
The reason why more women choose the public sector or teaching is because of the time they have to dedicate to their families. In the public sector, they have a timetable that finishes at 5pm — and holidays. In the private sector, they would have to be connected all the time.
Are any of the private companies trying to become more family friendly, maybe through better hours and conditions?
I think the most important change has to happen in professional culture. As long as you have this demanding environment, where you need to be available 24 hours a day, it’s very hard to include more women. But the big companies are now trying to create better conditions for women, such as with flexible schedules, opportunities to work from home or workplace baby care.
I think these companies realise that they really need women for innovation. Because to be innovative, you have to have different minds thinking about your projects, especially in ICT.
Q&As are edited for length and clarity.