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27/06/2024 - 11:25

Summer workshop to increase the number of women and genderqueer in IT

Summer workshop to increase the number of women and genderqueer in IT - Available at University of Iceland

“Girls who code (Stelpur forrita) is a summer workshop designed to increase interest in and improve the gender balance in computer science and software engineering and to reduce dropout rate of female and genderqueer students currently enrolled in the subjects,“ say Saeeda Shafaee and Theresia Mita Erika, students of computer science at the University of Iceland. In August they will host a weeklong programme with the aim of introducing women and genderqueers to the possibilities within IT. Among the topics covered are e-commerce, cyber security, language technology and innovation.

Saeeda and Mita are both well into their bachelor studies in computer science and say that with this initiative they also want to encourage underrepresented minorities such as immigrants, women and genderqueer people to consider IT as a career path, being immigrants themselves. Their stories are quite fascinating.

Mita is originally from Indonesia but moved to Iceland in the year 2016 after meeting her Icelandic husband in Japan where they were both studying. Formally trained as a dressmaker, she took up studies in Icelandic as a second language and completed a degree in both Icelandic and Chinese studies in 2022. “I used to work in tourism and I studied Chinese because I wanted to use the language due to the increasing numbers of Chinese tourists in Iceland,“ Mita explains. 

Then COVID hit the world and the tourism industry came to a standstill, so Mita decided to find a new career. “I decide I decided to take a few computer science classes as they are practical skills that my former coworkers have benefitted from. I was not brave enough to fully commit to enrolling in the programme before 2022 because I wasn’t sure if I could be this stereotypical image of a computer scientist, at least the one in my mind. Of course, it all changed when I took Computer Science 1 which was taught by Ebba Þóra Hvannberg, the only female professor in the department. I truly felt that I could just be myself and succeed as long as I try hard enough. I am so thankful for Ebba’s patience, the time and support she continues to give to the students really made an impact on me," says Mita.

Saeeda came to Iceland as a refugee in 2012. Originally from Afghanistan and born in Iran, she has now spent half of her life in Iceland. Interestingly enough, she never thought she would wind up in computer science, as her childhood dream was to become a doctor and help people. "After the death of my grandfather, I realized it was not my dream to become a doctor, but rather someone who could have helped him walk again. With him gone, I found myself deserted, lost, and without any passion."

Her first point of contact with computer science was during COVID when she accidentally overheard a cyber security course that her sister was taking. "It was fascinating how involved the students were, and the teacher spoke so passionately about everything that it made me want to listen more and guess the correct answers to his questions," says Saeeda. Two years later, she enrolled in computer science at the University of Iceland. 

Saeeda og Mita

Saeeda Shafaee and Theresia Mita Erika, students in computer science at the University of Iceland.

Huge support and interest from UI and the industry

Mita and Saeeda met while studying computer science at the University and were part of a team that revived Ada – an association of women in IT at the University of Iceland - after COVID. “As part of the revival team, we realised that we could forge our own path as anything we do would be an improvement from the previous year. I started as a deputy member on the board and began participating by organising events, reaching out to students to find out what they needed and what they were excited about. Realizing that my actions can make a difference and that people take me seriously when I represent the interest of the students in Ada empowered me to try and do more.

In the second year, I served as the Vice President and I really loved being part of the diverse administration in Ada. Being a foreigner and a mature student, I was initially nervous about holding such a position on the board but I only felt support and acceptance from my fellow board members as well. I felt the girls were really welcoming and very supportive. It felt very inspiring and this got me thinking about what I could do for others  in my position My experience in Ada really gave me the opportunity to observe and understand the challenges faced by female and genderqueer students in the department and encouraged me to start thinking about the scope of my capabilities and who to reach out to,“ says Mita.

Saeeda has also been very active in Ada and served as the event coordinator for the Ada administration in 2023-2024. “It was the first time for me to be involved in this kind of organization. It was a challenge coming into it completely blind and learning everything from scratch. We scheduled so many Vísós and we made the most of the opportunities we had to get people to get to know us. People know that we are very driven women and there is a lot of curiosity about our work,“ says Saeeda who will be the president of Ada next academic year. 

They therefore both wanted to contribute even more and when Saeeda came up with the idea for Girls who code (Stelpur forrita) Mita encouraged taking action. “We started to check if we could get funding from Rannís and Nýsköpunarsjóður námsmanna and the University of Iceland Academic Affairs Fund. In the end, we got support from the latter,“ says Mita and adds that both she and Saeeda feel a lot of support from the University, especially the School of Engineering and Natural Sciences, and Matthias Book, professor of computer science; their main supervisor in the project.

They have also been reaching out to companies in IT for support. “We have gotten a really good response. So many people want to be involved in this project so we have to figure out how they can fit in and what arrangements can be made,“ says Saeeda.

Shedding light on the opportunities in IT

As mentioned earlier, Girls who Code (Stelpur forrita) aims to increase interest among women and genderqueer in computer science and software engineering as well as to reduce dropout rate of female studentsin these subjects. “To reach this goal we are providing insight into career paths that are open to those who graduate,“ says Mita.

Saeeda adds that the aim of Girls who code (Stelpur forrita) is also to connect the knowledge acquired at the University to real-life applications. Sometimes people attend a course and don’t know where they are going do with the information they gain there. “If you get actual industry experts or people who are working in the job market to tell students about things it makes everything more concrete and interesting,“ says Saeeda.

Finally, and the most important aim of the workshop is to create opportunities to make social connections. “Me and Saeeda both have similar backgrounds of having prior educational experiences before committing to computer science, and we really felt that we needed more support,“ Mita points out.

“Studies have been showing that once you enter this educational format and haven’t made significant social connections by the second semester, you are more likely to drop out. So, the earlier we can get people to mingle and form a support network the more dedicated  they would be to complete their programme. It is also the sense of belonging. To see women as peers and as role models in a male-dominated industry is be the best thing we can do for them,“ adds Saeeda.

“We are mostly trying to target women and genderqueers with the only requirement being them having an interest in IT. It can be students already enrolled at university or upper secondary school, students who are in their final year or even working professionals who want to get out of the low-wage cycle and create new opportunities," says Mita.

Week-long programme in August

The summer workshop will take place 12 - 16 of August between 9 am and 4 pm on the University campus. The maximum number of participants for the first one is 25 according to Mita. “We are mostly trying to target women and genderqueers with the only requirement being them having an interest in IT. It can be students already enrolled at university or upper secondary school, students who are in their final year or even working professionals who want to get out of the low-wage cycle and create new opportunities. Also people like Saeeda, who was already learning biomedical sciences and wanted to move away from that to a more practical degree like computer science,“ says Mita and adds that the workshop will be free of charge for participants who complete the workshop.

The main structure of the workshop is based on the success of another project within the university called “Stelpur diffra” which aims to inspire more teenage girls and genderqueers to pursue a passion for maths. It was established three years ago by newly graduated math student, Nanna Kristjánsdóttir. 

“We are very inspired by Nanna who did this for the first time as a first-year math student. I have so much respect for her and her project has already proved to be successful and we want to build on something that already works,“ says Mita whose full time job this summer will be to prepare the summer workshop while Saeeda is working full-time at a start-up company, along with the preparations.

Diverse programme with experienced women in IT

When asked about the programme of the workshop Saeeda points out that each day has a special focus. “On the first day, we will be focused on socializing and everyone getting to know each other and then we will introduce GitHub to the participants which is a collaborative platform for coding, widely used in the industry. We want to emphasize that when you are working in IT you are never really working alone, software development is collaborative work,“ Saeeda underlines.

Mita adds that days 2-4 will be divided into two sessions, morning and afternoon. The morning session will be led by experts and in the afternoon participants will be implementing the knowledge they gained in the morning in collaborative guided projects. On day five we were thinking about introducing students to the vísindaferð or Vísó, or lecture on career paths after graduation, “ says Mita.

Socializing, e-commerce, cyber security, language technology and innovation

A large group of teachers, students, and experts from the industry will take part in the programme along with Saeeda and Mita. “We will have representatives from Nörd, the main student organization for students in computer science and software engineering, and Ada on the first day and these are the people that will be your support network at the University if you choose to enrol in computer science and software engineering later,“ Saeeda points out.

Day 2 will be focused on e-commerce, probably the closest part of IT in our daily lives due to online shopping. “Valenttina Griffin is a mechanical engineer who ended up working in IT and now owns an e-commerce business. She is also on the board of WomenTech Iceland. She will talk about project management, web development and how to realise ideas,“ says Mita. 

Day 3 will have cyber security as a theme with Jacqueline Clare Mallett. She is a cyber security professor at Reykjavik University, and we thought it would be very good to have her, she is a passionate lecturer and she was my first choice for the programme. She is a very interesting person and we want to emphasize that the University of Iceland and Reykjavík University are working together on cyber security development and will be offering a joint programme in that area,“ says Saeeda.

On day 4 Steinunn Rut Friðriksdóttir, who is a PhD student at the University of Iceland, will be the main speaker and she has been teaching introduction to language technology at the University. “I attended that course and really loved it. She also going to be the role model for life in academia being one of the few women going into PhD level studies in IT. On that day we will be focusing on AI and showing how large language models work and what they are capable of,“ Saeeda adds.

On the last day of the summer workshop Safa Jemai will meet the participants. She is a software engineering graduate from UI and has founded two companies. “She is amazing and essentially the immigrant's manifestation of the Icelandic dream; coming to Iceland and thriving in your studies, having your own companies and doing great things for women of foreign origin, being visible and a role model,“ says Mita. ”She also won Gulleggið and will be talking about participating in hackathons and competitions and how that can have an effect on gaining confidence and encourage women to try out new things. Her company Geko is a hiring agency focusing on women and STEAM and they will probably have the most well-rounded information on how the job market is, especially for women.“

Want to offer a programme during the winter as well

Saeeda and Mita have a very ambitious plan and want to develop the idea behind Girls who code (Stelpur forrita) even further, offering participants in the summer workshop and other people sessions during the winter in collaboration with the industry. “We see it as weekly sessions during the winter. It is important to keep the momentum and support those who are interested and want to prepare for university the next year,“ says Mita. 

The main object of Girls who code (Stelpur forrita) is to increase the number of women and genderqueers in IT. Theresa and Saeeda point out that the number of women graduating with a degree in IT is very low. “We can also see that there is a high dropout rate of both women and men. Saeeda and I would want to start by helping women and then gain knowledge on what works and what doesn’t, and then try to apply that for the general student cohort,“ says Mita, and Saeeda adds: “Of course, we care about the whole student body because otherwise you won´t have any camaraderie of alumni.“

Saeeda Shafaee and Theresia Mita Erika, students of computer science at the University of Iceland. In August they will host a weeklong programme with the aim of introducing women and genderqueers to the magic within IT.  image/Kristinn Ingvarsson