By Dulce Pontaza*
Sylvia Sandoval got the highest grade in her class. However, instead of being congratulated on her efforts, the university student was grilled as to how she’d cheated. One of her teachers insisted that she confess, as he didn’t believe it was possible for a woman to be more capable or know more than a man. That was during the sixties.
Sandoval is the mother of Abel Sánchez, Executive Director of the Geospatial Data Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. This specialist says that even though 50 years have passed since that anecdote, inequality and the gender gap still exist in professional training, mainly in scientific and technological careers.
There are still few women who decide to study degrees linked to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Social norms, expectations, and prejudices hold girls back from studying in these areas, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Each program lasts 40 hours. Over this time, female students receive training on algorithmic thinking and problem solving.
Concerned about this situation, Sánchez had a “crazy idea” to embrace this area of opportunity by training teenage girls. This was how Patrones Hermosos (Beautiful Patterns) was born in 2017, a program with a mission to encourage girls between the ages of 13 and 17 to develop programming skills. The goal is for them to become passionate about the subject and later on choose to study a STEM degree, stand out in their professional areas, and help close the visible gender gap in different disciplines.
In 1903, the Frenchwoman Marie Curie was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. She shared it with Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie for their research into radiation phenomena. Later, in 1911, Marie also won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry after discovering the elements of radium and polonium. Since then, 52 women have been awarded the prize, but only 20 have won it for basic sciences such as physics, chemistry, or medicine.
There’s a notable gap in Mexico as well. Data from the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACyT) reveal that there are 28,630 scientists registered in the National Research System (SNI). Of this total, only 37% are women.
The Tec as partner
“I gave a very successful computing course at MIT a while ago. When I’d finished, I thought about how I could bring it to Mexico and the scope it could have, specifically for women,” says Sánchez, founder of Patrones Hermosos.
In order to make it happen on Mexican soil, this digital innovation expert needed a partner who shared his vision of encouraging female talent through education and learning. Tecnológico de Monterrey turned out to be the ideal partner for executing this project.
Sánchez proposed starting work on a pilot program of programming workshops to Juan Nolazco, Dean for the Southern Region of the Tecnológico de Monterrey School of Engineering and Sciences. The beneficiaries would be Mexican teenage girls, who would be trained by a group of female students from American schools. It would be a bi-national collaboration.
With support from Tec de Monterrey authorities, the program began taking shape in 2017 and word started to spread. Monterrey Campus witnessed the birth of the pilot program in summer of the same year. Workshops were given over two weeks to 50 junior high and high school students. From Monday to Friday, attendees were immersed in programming lessons given by four female MIT instructors.
Female students receive training on algorithmic thinking and problem solving.
Encouragement from an early age
Algorithms, web design, and problem solving were the three subjects that Danya Carolina Gómez, a PrepaTec student, learned about and learned how to apply in everyday life over the course of a week. “I had fun and learned a lot,” she recalls. She took part as a student in the 2018 program and came back the following year. However, this time she was wearing another hat: she attended as an instructor.
In each program, female students work for 40 hours on developing algorithmic thinking and solving certain problems, which go from maximizing happiness to how to pack a suitcase. Later on, they are given more complex real-life situations to solve. These activities help them enrich their professional profiles.
“A country’s economic development depends to a large extent on the strengths of professionals in the areas of engineering, mathematics, and computer technologies. Tec de Monterrey also has the social responsibility to encourage these areas at all levels,” emphasizes Nolazco.
The study “Cracking the code: girls’ and women’s education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)”, published by UNESCO in 2017, indicates that the gender gap in these disciplines can be seen in early childhood education and becomes more visible at higher levels of education. The report indicates that, worldwide, women represent only 35% of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of study.
Social norms, expectations, and prejudices hold girls back from studying science and technology.
When the program began operation, it had four female MIT students as instructors. They traveled to Mexico just to share their knowledge with the female students who took part in the pilot program. The mechanics have shifted over time: nine female Mexican mentors have joined the program, some from Tec de Monterrey and others from partner universities.
To become a Patrones Hermosos instructor, students have to know about the topic and apply for entry. The organizers then choose those candidates who are most qualified to give lessons, interview them, and send them to training meetings.
“One of the most important aspects is the sensitivity they bring to teaching and their patience for working with girls from junior high and high school, because it’s no easy task. It’s a responsibility that requires commitment to teach them,” points out Leticia Almaguer Flores, teacher and instructor coordinator at the Tec’s Monterrey campus.
As of today, 78 female instructors from MIT and 350 from Mexican universities have taken part in the program. For Almaguer Flores, an instructor’s job is not only to train, but also to inspire and encourage new generations.
Closing the gap
The number of participants in Patrones Hermosos has grown. The program has now been implemented in different Mexican states, Tec campuses, and other institutions. 672 students took the workshops in 2018, with the figure rising to 1,701 students in 2019.
Google, Amazon, Motorola, and Softtek are just some of the technology companies that have supported the initiative. Other local companies have also joined in, as well as the public and private universities offering their facilities. “We’re growing at an overwhelming rate,” says the program leader.
The plan is to cross borders and have an impact on more women in different parts of the world. This year, for example, a pilot was held in Chile. “The results are undeniable. The girls’ enthusiasm and talent are really transformative,” says Sánchez.
*This text was originally published in Issue 26 of Tec Review for November-December.