Liliana Franco's Girls Code: Inspiring Paraguay's Girls in STEM
A significant gender gap exists worldwide in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. According to a 2019 UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) report, fewer than 30% of people in STEM careers are women. But, organisations like Girls Code in Paraguay play a pivotal role in empowering young girls to excel in these fields.
Our Ambassador, Liliana Estigarribia Franco, is helping young girls from rural communities in Paraguay get an education in computer science through her NGO, Girls Code.
Girls Code conducts workshops in rural and urban areas where girls, some as young as six years old, learn coding languages critical thinking and develop their problem-solving skills. This strengthens their self-esteem by enabling them to improve their lives and the lives of their communities through technology.
Liliana recalls a specific instance where they taught a group of girls how to create a webpage. In response, the girls designed a timetable for the local bus service, significantly improving their community's daily routines. "We didn’t know that was the need in the community, but we gave them the tools, and they found a solution," says Liliana.
Currently, Liliana and her team run two workshops. One is held at a business college for 17 students majoring in computer science, and the other engages 202 girls from a rural college.
Liliana says, "You don't have to have an advanced education in programming to learn how to program. But you have to learn more about critical thinking than programming.”
"We are once again taking the technology, showing how it works, and then leaving that place with the hope that the tools are going to do the work, and it happens every time," adds Liliana.
Overcoming Challenges with Workshops
In the initial stages of Girls Code, their focus was primarily on girls aged between six and 13. The workshop was a success, and the girl's curiosity eagerly embraced every element Girls Code had to offer.
The organisation's usual metric for measuring impact involves observing whether the girls pursue careers in technology or venture into the STEM field after attending a series of workshops. This process has been challenging because it requires significant time and resources due to the waiting period involved.
When Girls Code created workshops for slightly older girls aged 13 to 18, they encountered resistance from families. The girls' excitement for workshops declined as familial expectation influenced their choices.
Nevertheless, Liliana says that it is easy for the organisation to assess the outcomes of this particular age’s interest in STEM careers following their engagement in the workshop. If girls choose to pursue a technology-oriented career between the ages of 13 and 18, Girls Code has the tools to evaluate and monitor their progress.
In addition, the organisation provides tailored assistance to girls who wish to move from rural areas to cities for further education or career development. "Our challenge in that way is to create a career path for them, and that means we have to go out and find enterprises and businesses that can accommodate an intern," says Liliana.
Building confidence and a career in STEM
Liliana shares Girls Code’s motto: You can’t be what you can’t see. She says, "This motto focuses on the significance of representation and visibility, highlighting that individuals need role models and examples to inspire them to pursue paths they might not have considered otherwise".
She emphasises the importance of having role models and women leaders in technology because mentors can inspire young girls and instil confidence that accessing STEM careers and other industries is possible.
Working with Girls Code for the past seven years has opened up opportunities for Liliana to connect and collaborate with like-minded leaders around the world. Last year, she won the 'Young Mbarete National Prize 2022' and attended the One Young World Summit 2022. These experiences have given her the confidence to take on the role of Executive Director at Girls Code this year.
Girls Code has impacted 1097 girls through more than 70 workshops and mentorship programmes in recent years. They have partnered with over 20 organisations in Paraguay and three countries abroad.