Name: Natalja Rodionova
Role and Organization: Founder, Sisters of Code
Actions Priority: Enable women and girls to engage and pursue Technology-related education by offering a free eighteen-week coding training program led by female mentors and providing a supportive environment for girls creative and digital skills to thrive.
Originally from Latvia, I have accepted a challenge and moved to Cambodia in 2015 to head and run operations of a newly established training centre STEP IT Academy, specializing in tech education. After observing a dramatic underrepresentation of girls in the field of technology, in January 2019, we founded a non-profit educational program: the first female coding club in Cambodia - Sisters of Code, which has received support and is run in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport of Cambodia.
Besides Sisters of Code, STEP IT Academy has been organizing different international programs: The Hour of Code in cooperation with the US Embassy in Cambodia, STEM Hub Cambodia in cooperation with the British Embassy Phnom Penh, Global Game Jam for the past three years and more than 10 ICT bootcamps, taking place in different locations in Cambodia. We are glad that our work was acknowledge with prizes by SOLVE MIT, EQUALS in TECH and AmCham Cambodia.
I have always been driven by challenges and learning. Developing skills, exploring opportunities, and helping others to grow are very important for my motivation. That is why working in the educational sector is really a rewarding experience for me. When I came to Cambodia, I had to learn a lot about the culture, history of the county and the dreams of the young people, as those are STEP IT Academy primary audience. And I was truly admired about hearing how passionate are Cambodian students about learning, building their skills with a goal to support the development of their country and ensure stability and prosperity for their families. However, I also saw that female students are often been discouraged from fulfilling their ideas and even studying. Being a woman and a mother, having knowledge and resources to tackle this problem, I have decided to act. And it seems to be working. Our educational activities have received a lot of support and sincere interest from the local community.
The world now is living in the digital age. It is exciting how many new solutions are there and are being created every day. Technology, creativity, problem solving are the key areas that drive Industry 4.0, and I am proud to be directly involved in that process by managing an IT training center in Cambodia and helping young talents to grow their skills. At the same time, being a woman, I see a lot of inequality and barriers for female students. In Cambodia only 7% of girls choose to study technology as their major, and only 30% of graduates would work in the industry. Women feel unwelcomed in the digital industry. They hear discouraging opinions about their abilities to learn, they do not see enough role models and do not get enough of support while pursuing their goals. That is why we have created Sisters of Code, the first female coding club in Cambodia that aims to empower female students to learn digital skills with providing free of charge educational programs and establishing a supportive community.
Sisters of Code is the first and the only female coding club in Cambodia and we are focused on creating an inclusive and supportive environment, based on values of partnership, inspiration and growth. Our surveys with the students show, that they really appreciate this opportunity to learn together with other girls and attend lessons with female mentors. We help students to grow their confidence both in the field of technology and their personal mindsets. That is what makes Sisters of Code a unique program. It is not only about coding skills. It is about personal development, supportive community, and an opportunity to discover the world of technology as a gateway to creating solutions, bringing to life ideas and exploring. Whatever career path our Sisters of Code graduates would choose, we want to make sure they would feel empowered and confident to use technology as a useful tool.
Our educational program for Sisters of Code consists of 3 modules: basics of visual coding and we use resources available on code.org; creative coding and game development with Scratch and finally web development with HTML/CSS and WIX. The program takes 18 weeks and we have included in the curriculum also such soft skills development, as creativity, project management, presentation skills and teamwork. We are happy to get a very positive feedback from our students on the program: 86% told that they have changed their perception towards learning coding after completing Sisters of Code lessons. At first, they though it is difficult and not for girls, and now they are more confident in their abilities and see more opportunities to apply those skills. Besides weekly lessons, we have monthly video meetings with successful women, working in tech industry to connect our students with role models. Besides that, we have just launched a new program: Sisters of Code Ambassadors, which is a training for trainers, and we hope that we would be able to scale Sisters of Code to more locations in Cambodia through this program.
We are very glad to be able to partner with IBMZ. For our students in Cambodia, it is an exciting opportunity to get international connection and access world class resources! That is what digital world about – connecting together despite distance or different countries. We hope that this partnership could bring our students best opportunities to learn more about tendencies in the IT industry, get trainings in soft skills and grow their confidence. I am particularly interested in Creativity and Innovations workshops, Design thinking and data science essentials.
There are so many great stories with Sisters of Code students – stories of accepting a challenge, committing to learning and following personal dreams. Sok Soraksa, who is 19 years old and enrolled in a Computer Science undergraduate program at a public university, shared: “In my class, there are only five female students, and the other 35 students are male and often I am afraid to ask questions, as I know boys will judge me. So I want to be the most outstanding student to show the world that female students are also good at coding and technology. I hope Sisters of Code helps me to reach my dream to become an outstanding coder and create solutions that are useful for society.” Another story is about a 10 y.o. girl, Pheary, who at her young age decided that she wants to be a programmer and Sisters of Code was the only place for her to have a possibility to learn coding. Her story was an exceptional, as her father was a programmer too and he was very encouraging, which is a rare situation in Cambodia.
I hope that Sisters of Code can change the current situation in Cambodia and make sure that female engaging in tech sector is recognised and welcomed. There is an obvious lack of women in the field of technology. Women are making 50% of human population. But if we look at the technological companies, or at the classrooms in the Universities or training centers – consider yourself very lucky to find 3 female programmers in a group of 10 people. That is a global problem, and it is even more serious in Asia. Girls are raised with a thought that technology is for boys. Boys are better with computers, with logic, with math. That is what girls hear and they start to believe so. They start thinking – why should I even try if it is obvious, it is not for me. We did a survey in Cambodia and realised that around 10% of girls truly believe boys are better with computers and 44% admitted that they are not supported to study technology. Imagine what kind of will power a girl should have to be brave enough to stand out and tell – no, I want to try myself, I want to learn, and I want to see if I can do. When we have established Sisters of Code, the first female coding club in Cambodia, I had an honor to meet those women – Cambodian female programmers, who challenged the dominating perception of girls being not capable to learn and work in the field of technology, and they all wanted to support young generation of girls to support them. Sisters of Code has proven that with the right approach, with the focus on creating a community and collaboration, girls are making an amazing progress in coding, they do enjoy it and they unleash their creative potential.
People might have different experiences and different opinions on their lives and the world. And that is fine. However, when creating the story of your life – focus on what you want to tell and how do you want to see yourself. We as humans have unlimited potential and so much to discover about ourselves and the world and it would be just wrong to discourage this exciting journey of exploration, the gift or learning and development, for the sake of misconceptions about differences in genders.
If you find yourself passionate about learning technology, if you see yourself as a programmer or maybe a cyber security specialist, or a data scientist – go for it! Start learning step by step, keep practicing, find your community to get support and help others. Besides technical skills, find a way for personal development, which is so important for making sure your life is in harmony.
Get ready to learn all your life. Which is actually a great benefit – you will never get bored! The most important attribute for success is to understand that success is not an ultimate goal, but a process, which can both rewarding and challenging. Also believing in yourself and abilities to achieve goals, not being scared to dream big and be open to new opportunities is what makes a person successful.
Sisters of Code was started just recently in 2019 and we are proud of being noticed and recognized for our efforts. It is a teamwork; it is a dedication and commitment to the ultimate goal – to make sure girls are welcomed in the digital world and are engaging in creating solutions. All that is possible when we partner and work together. So, if anyone would be inspired to support Sisters of Code activities, feel free to connect and discuss what can we do together. Our website www.sistersofcode.org
Thank you so much for this amazing interview full of passion for tech and women empowerment.
Moreover, don’t miss the work of our collaborator ITU working towards involving key stakeholders and communities to encourage higher female involvement in STEM fields.
Check out https://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Digital-Inclusion/Women-and-Girls/Girls-in-ICT-Portal/Pages/GirlsInICTDay/2021/GICT-2021.aspx.
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