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Not too far away from the Ministry of Education in the overcrowded city of Prishtina, Kosovo, a group of eight young girls are working on developing Raporto, a platform for discreet and confidential reporting of gender discrimination in IT. Their weekends are spent in Hackershtelle, an IT community meet-up point organized and maintained by enthusiastic community volunteers. In Hackershtelle, whose name resembles the word for “castle” in Albanian, girls learn PHP, the programming language, and later implement what they’ve learned in the development of the Raporto platform. Everything they learn is put into practice – the results have to be tangible (as tangible as virtual life can be).

The girls spending their weekends developing Raporto are members of Girls Coding Kosova (GCK), a local NGO that aims to provide girls, under the supervision of professional mentors and trainers, with programming skills needed in a labor market that tends to be hostile towards women. The organization highlights peer-to-peer support and group learning as important factors in solving problems. In these sorts of projects, teamwork is the crux of successful development of the platform. Girls are encouraged to draw on the knowledge of their peers and existing resources when solving problems in program development, forging the means to become professional programmers.

This is not the first project of this nature GCK has undertaken since the initiative’s inception in 2014. GCK was created by Zana Idrizi and Blerta Thaçi to fight the ever-increasing prejudice and bias against women and girls in IT, social factors that dissuade many from considering careers in technology. As lucrative as this sector is—especially for a developing and transitioning country like Kosovo—it fails to attract girls and women. This is largely due to social constraints that suggest women do not belong in this field and are somehow incapable of performing tasks related to programming.

Add to this a largely inefficient system of education, especially in fields related to technology, and the rationale behind supporting GCK and similar initiatives becomes clear. In order to land a decent job in IT, a programmer has to shape her own skills using her own resources, even if she has a degree in a relevant field. That’s where GCK steps in: it helps to facilitate this process and make young girls more employable, while promoting its success stories and encouraging more girls to pursue careers in IT.

For GCK, it is not only important to provide programming trainings – integrating community outreach in that training is just as important. The development of Raporto is one example of this. After getting trained in a specific technology, girls move on to implement the know-how gained in developing projects that contribute to the betterment of society.

Other initiatives, such as Female in IT and Girls in IT, have similar goals to GCK: closing the gap between skills girls have and those that are needed in the labor market, keeping in mind the additional barriers girls face in Kosovo. Despite these initiatives, the playing field has still not been leveled for members of different genders. Statistics regarding employment in IT demonstrate that much more needs to be done to reach gender balance – and to reach a balance of opportunities for everyone, equally.

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Kosovo, the youngest country of Europe, has had a turbulent history, to say the least. Having gotten out of war in 1999, Kosovo still struggles to reach the sustainable and significant economic growth that would be necessary to lift out of poverty approximately 30% of its population. Agriculture is the country’s main economic activity, yet Kosovo still imports food products for its 1.8 million people. Inefficiency and low-skilled labor characterize its economy.

Nonetheless, Kosovo prides itself on its young population, a significant part of which speaks English and, to a lesser extent, German. The familiarity with these two languages combined with Kosovo’s close proximity to EU countries and its cheap labor force puts the country in an advantageous position for outsourcing IT services. The Ministry of Trade pinpoints IT and technology as strategic areas—sectors in which Kosovo should focus in order to tap the potential of its youth and reach its longed-for development[1].

Despite strong consensus that IT and programming are the way to go and a commitment on paper to focus on creating a strong IT sector, Kosovo abounds in stories of foreign investors that came and left due to the lack of skilled labor. The biggest culprit in this case is the education system, i.e. an inadequate curriculum and unprepared teachers, which often sends its graduates into the labor market unprepared.

In addition, government attempts to provide incentives to direct youth towards certain programs have been nonexistent. For individual students, it is much more beneficial to get through the relatively less challenging path of getting a degree in economics, for which a larger array of job opportunities await after graduation, than to pursue IT fields wherein curricula are more challenging and which still may not prepare one to get a job. The incentives the job market offers and those offered by the system of education are not synchronized, which leads to an overcrowding of economics departments and fierce competition for jobs that require an economics degree.

An unemployment rate of 35.3% looms sinisterly over the hopes of Kosovars when it comes to economic development. The unemployment rate of youth (aged from 15 to 24) has reached 60%, an even darker vision—and that percentage is higher for girls and women. With this large of a pool for employees, policies should be directed towards educating the work force and strengthening relevant institutions that create a safe environment to invest.

The economic and financial development for citizens of Kosovo, needless to say, leaves much to be desired. The situations worsen when it comes to girls and women, who face inequalities—social, financial, economic, and otherwise—because of their gender. The statistics reflect this situation. Only 12.5% of women seeking jobs actually have one, compared to 41.3% of men. Moreover, women are underrepresented in many political and economic venues, including policy-making institutions and all three governing bodies. Women’s representation in these institutions falters due to a vicious cycle: when women are not trusted with professional or other positions, they get less experience to develop their skills and become less qualified candidates for the upcoming available positions. The modest attempts to increase these percentages, such as the mandatory quotas in governing institutions, leave much to be desired; there is still much to be done to eradicate the deeply embedded patriarchal gender roles. Although quotas are an improvement, so far Kosovo has failed to stir development in this regard through meaningful steps. In fact, the implementation of these quotas is looked at as a burden, and not as an opportunity to reach gender equality and empower women. The composure of IT sector is a reflection of the level of gender equality in Kosovo. Of all individuals currently working or engaged in the IT sector, only 20% are women, a statistic from STIKK (Kosovo Association of Information and Communication Technology). With the vast potential Kosovo allegedly has in IT-related fields and the government’s self-avowed focus on promoting gender equality, policies that guide women towards these fields should not be so far-fetched. However, the fact that governmental bodies have not even bothered to obtain accurate statistics on this matter reflects the dismissive approach it has had towards this issue. There is clearly enough space to employ more girls and women in this sector through creating economic opportunities and utilizing existing resources.

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Even though the education system in Kosovo was built from scratch after the war, the system still bears traces of the communist era. Western-prone teaching reforms have not eradicated the teaching mentality of Yugoslavian times, a mentality which revolves around the premise that the teacher is almighty. In classrooms operated according to this premise, critical thinking is discouraged, while obedience to the teacher and the system are praised and rewarded. The prevalence of this mentality has persisted throughout the education reforms Kosovo has enacted, rendering them illegible and purposeless. This approach is problematic, especially when it comes to a quick-paced field such as technology and programming. Technology and programming cannot be taught in an environment that does not tolerate differing opinions or that does not consult the latest developments. As a result, graduates are not prepared to enter the labor market.

The University of Prishtina, a public university, is the largest university in Kosovo, introducing around five thousand graduates into the labor market each year. Out of these, only around 150 graduate with degrees in computer engineering and around 300 in the sciences (a portion of these graduate with degrees in computer sciences). Even though the general composition of graduates indicates that the percentage of women exceeds men by around 10 percentage points, in these two fields the picture shifts completely –which is in line with society’s expectations about what a girls is or is not supposed to study. The small number of graduates in these fields, even from the largest university, cannot satisfy the labor market’s ever-increasing need for programmers. In addition, the phenomenon of graduates not having the skills to start working immediately is quite emphasized in the University of Prishtina. This is best proven through the quality of graduates this university and others produce.

The mentality of the teacher as superior and the student as inferior do not exist in trainings organized by GCK and other similar organizations. The trainings are as informal as possible and everyone is treated equally. Peer learning is encouraged, and using teams’ skills to solve problems is the key message trainers emphasize. There is no unique source of knowledge, no ‘bible’ of programming. Girls are encouraged to look up sources on the internet to overcome problems they face during the sessions. Smaller groups are created to go over more serious problems, where complementing skills of different members ultimately lead to solutions. In simpler terms, these trainings lay the path for self-development and self-creation, with trainers functioning only as guides, a drastically different approach from what can be found in local universities.

From what can be gathered by GCK in its provided trainings, this is what shapes successful programmers.

***

There is a glitch in the education system that is impeding the economic development that could prevail in Kosovo. But a bug this size requires more than one debugger to be fixed. In the global competitive market that we find ourselves today, far more than a mediocre focus in agriculture, as a first step, is needed to survive, and let alone to thrive. The next step should direct our focus towards science and technology, so that Kosovo can harvest the potential of its young labor force. Initiatives like GCK, coming from the government or NGOs, that are focused on market needs should be not only welcomed but encouraged on a national level. In order to bridge the existing gap between labor force and the market, Kosovo ought to focus on a pragmatic approach even in teaching programming.

While doing so, Kosovo could tap the potential of its unemployed youth to further the national agenda and, with proper training, solve many social and technical problems. Similar routes of problem-solving have been initiated in a competitive fashion, where youngsters have created apps and webs to solve social problems in exchange for monetary rewards. The Municipality of Prishtina and Gjakova have organized competitions in which different groups gathered to create apps that would help municipalities increase expenditure transparency. These formats have a positive impact, but a more important aspect of these competitions goes neglected: informal training.

Communities such as GCK not only educate but also create a safe space for girls and women to explore freely the boundaries others have placed for them—and, more importantly, to surpass them. In a bias-free environment, girls are enthusiastic to write code and develop programs while challenging themselves to grow. This is clearly seen in the eagerness with which they deliver their unpaid work. Keeping them focused on achieving a greater good motivates them even further. The ultimate goal of GCK is not for girls to learn the piece of code that links a fill-in form with a server; the goal is to use that piece of code as a tool to create a safer place for themselves and their colleagues.

Girls are not learning just coding in GCK; we are creating the path to independence, giving a voice to girls, giving them a purpose and establishing roots for self-confidence and self-actualization. Projects like this one, based on community and peer-to-peer support, have shown themselves to be key in women’s empowerment, even without considering the impact these initiatives have in society. GCK’s motto is “Let’s change the world one code at a time,” and GCK is well aware of the potential hidden within a piece of code. Kosovo should realize this potential as well, and use it to empower girls and women.

 


References

  1. Invest in Kosovo: Opportunities in Business Processing and Information Technology Outsourcing, 2010

Written by Adriana Sejfia

Adriana Sejfia received her B.A. in Information Technology and Economics from Rochester Institute of Technology. She works as a researcher at GAP Institute for Advanced Studies, a think tank in Prishtina, Kosovo. Adriana co-founded Girls Coding Kosova, an initiative that attempts to eradicate gender discrimination in IT while offering trainings...
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