While gender parity in the tech industry as a whole is still a long way off for many sectors, there have been some (minor) successes in bring more women into STEM fields. However there is still a long way to go, especially when companies like Google can only boast about 17% of their technical employees being women. And that is just Google; the rest of the industry has far fewer women, with coding and software development being among the worst offenders. It is estimated that more than 92% of all coders are men, which is a remarkable gender divide. I know that a lot of these issues are due to the socialization of boys and girls, as well as gender roles that our society often silently reinforces.
I will always remain baffled by the tech industry’s stubborn resistance to creating diversified workforces. Because most tech companies are developing products that are used by a wide range of people of both genders, why isn’t it obvious that better products will result from a wider range of genders, races and personalities? And lest you think that this is just a North American issue, think again. The gender diversity problem is pervasive in the tech industry throughout the world. The Dutch National Expert Organisation on Girls/Women and Science/Technology (VHTO) is an organization in the Netherlands that has been working to bridge these divides and bring more women into STEM careers since the 1980s, and over the years they have developed some pretty clever ways of doing so.
On the surface using 3D design software like Blender to teach people to code may seem a little strange, but VHTO and their DigiVita Code Event and Summer Camp initiatives are seeing quite a bit of success. The DigiVita code events are hour-long workshops that have been designed to help teach the basic concepts of technology to young girls. It may seem unconventional on the surface, but with Blender’s built-in scripting support feature it’s actually a great way to explain how coding works and provide new users with instantly visible results. The added benefit is the fact that Blender is a free, open source 3D content-creation software so the young girls that VHTO are trying to reach out to can easily get their own copy and continue to learn without the need of other expensive or overly complicated software packages.
At this year’s Blender Conference 2015, VHTO’s Lieke Boon and Monique Dewanchand from At Mind, an open source software development company, gave a presentation about their experiences while organizing and teaching the young women at their workshops. The presentation lasted about 30 minutes and covered several topics including why it is harder to entice girls into STEM, some of the roadblocks that the Dutch educational system have in place, the lack of Blender tutorials aimed at younger users online and the results of their efforts. The talk is available on YouTube, however it seems that there is a glitch with the sound, which is absent for the first 25 minutes of the talk.
Here is the video in case the Blender Foundation ever gets around to fixing the sound:
Boon and Dewanchand recently answered a few questions from OpenSource.com about their program and why they think their workshops work. You can read the entire interview here, but what I found most interesting is what they see as a major lack of online resources for younger users of Blender. Boon and Dewanchand say that most of the girls learned to code quite quickly during their events, often finishing while there was still time remaining. But when they leave, they often find it hard to continue their education using existing online tools because most tutorials are geared towards older users.
“I was surprised to see how easily they could perform the tutorials and exercises. I know of some girls that have continued learning Blender. The majority is experimenting with modelling; creating an ice cream cone on a hot day, creating a dragon based on a model from Blend Swap. One girl is trying to learn how to rig. I am really amazed what they are exploring on their own. However the majority of online tutorials seem to be too difficult for these kids. There is a need for simple, step-by-step tutorials for kids. This is something that I am currently working on,” Dewanchand told OpenSource.com.
I remain mystified that there is so little outreach from the tech community to not just young girls, but younger users period. Considering that STEM education is likely to be the single most important field of study in the coming years it is mind boggling that so many organisations, including one as dedicated and progressive as the Blender Foundation, lack adequate resources to encourage younger users. While it is likely that any solutions to this lack of educational materials developed by Dewanchand and Boon will be focused on Dutch students, my hope is that it encourages similar efforts in North America and the rest of Europe. Discuss this story in the Blender Education forum thread on 3DPB.com.