UNESCO prize-winner changing the tech ecosystem for marginalized women in Brazil

“We lift women who never thought they could rise,” says Mariel Reyes Milk, Executive Director of {reprograma}, one of the two winners of the 2021 UNESCO Prize for Girls’ and Women’s Education.

Mariel launched {reprograma} along with co-founders Fernanda Faria and Carla de Bona in 2016 to reach and teach marginalized and low-income women who would normally be excluded from accessing training and pursuing employment in Brazil’s booming technology sector.

In just five years, close to 1000 women and teenage girls have taken part in specially designed bootcamps and 9000 women and teenage girls have been reached and sensitized to the programme’s work through hackathons and other technical events.

Diversifying Brazil’s technology sector

”There is a shortage of computer programmers here in Brazil but when positions open up the vast majority of candidates are male, which also reflects the male-dominated training programmes and workplaces as well as the cultural belief that tech and STEM are not for women,” says Mariel.

”I did some research, and I couldn’t find anything – no bootcamps, no programmes, nothing specifically developed for women  – let alone for low income and marginalized women which is free of cost and with an employability focus. I thought ’this can’t be right’, and so we started {reprograma},” said Mariel.

“We focus on black women, those identifying as non-white, transgender, as well as unemployed women including mothers wanting to return to work – any woman really, who has dreamed of studying technology but never had the chance because of societal barriers or lack of opportunity and resources,” she said.

Women-centred bootcamps and learning methodology

At the heart of {reprograma}’s programme is a free 18-week training bootcamp, which focuses on equipping participants with social and emotional learning and the development of soft skills like negotiation along with the technical skills needed to succeed in a job in the tech sector.

”Everything, including the language of our courses, exercises and learning methodology is adapted to interest and appeal to the reality of women,” highlights Mariel.

“As our name infers, we are trying to reprogramme women’s mindset, so they believe in their skills and abilities and are equipped to deal with imposter syndrome, for example,” she said.

A great part of its success lies in the selection process. Out of an initial average of 3000 women applicants per cohort, 240 are chosen. “We really look for those who will stick with this to the end and be successful, women with a sense of purpose,” says Mariel, noting that almost 90 per cent of graduates so far have gone on to find employment in computer programming and coding.

Mentorship also plays a huge role in ensuring that students can meet and talk to people that they hope to emulate. “In our last adult cohort, 70 per cent of our instructors were alumni,” she said.

Breaking multiple barriers for transgender women

‘”In Brazil the life expectancy for transgender women is 35 years and, for many, vulnerable jobs in the informal economy are all they can access. This programme offers them a completely different path and personal safety at the same time. Many women go from absolutely no income to earning a relatively good wage with great prospects,” said Mariel.

For transgender woman Luiza Araújo, 25, {reprograma} has been profoundly lifechanging.

She worked as a cook for several years so she could escape prostitution. Now she is employed as a fulltime Data Analyst at a computer software company in São Paolo.

“The programme was my gateway to technology as a transgender woman,” she said.

Ambitious scale-up for the future

Building on their success, and aided by the Prize, there are plans to scale up {reprograma}, support the creation of an independent platform for hiring students, and design new courses with advanced programming content.

The programme has already attracted big industry names eager for well-trained recruits including Google and Facebook. And, in a miracle of timing, it had already begun to shift teaching online just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit so continued to flourish.

“Women make up 50 per cent  of the population yet we are just not represented strongly enough in positions to create solutions for the world’s problems. They bring their own diverse backgrounds, realities and sensitivities to what they create and their projects tend to focus on community, how to solve or help reduce social and environmental challenges faced in society, rather than more individualistic initiatives,” said Mariel.

“We have so many students now being taken up by industry, or starting their own programming or teaching initiatives that we are not just transforming individual lives, we are changing the tech ecosystem and culture itself. We are helping diversify algorithms!”

Comments are closed.