Mixing coding and life skills in Laboratoria's online training for women in Latin America (Part 2)

Participants in a Laboratoria online training. Photo: Courtesy Laboratoria
Participants in a Laboratoria online training. Photo: Courtesy Laboratoria


This is the second blog post of a two-part series. For part one, please click here.

Interviewing the participants in Laboratoria’s online coding bootcamp, which was designed to teach women coding so that they could enter the tech industry, was a revelation: “They really want us to learn, and they give us so much confidence,” says one woman. “I didn’t know how to work in teams before … I was really nervous, but now we have formed really strong bonds and  I know I can do it,” comments another.

Learning coding itself is hard. The five people I interviewed for this blog post, and a high number of the 190 participants surveyed by MIT D-Lab in a recent study on barriers and enablers for women engaged in on-line learning programs agreed that Laboratoria’s coding bootcamp was a challenge. Some of the women said it was the hardest thing they had ever done; they said they had shed tears and had meltdowns. But what really stands out is that the women who participated found the entire program valuable. They said it equipped them with a range of skills and self-knowledge, making them feel stronger and more centered, better able to handle stress, and more confident in their ability to solve problems and overcome challenges. And of all the things that women learned from the program, this internal growth is testament to Laboratoria’s vision of how a gender-sensitive online training program can give women the tools they need to improve their lives in ways that go far beyond coding skills.

Laboratoria, a nonprofit founded in Peru in 2014 and then expanding to Mexico, Chile, Brazil, and lastly to Colombia, runs an intensive six-month online coding bootcamp for women in five Latin American countries. To date, they have trained 2,800 women to enter the tech sector as coders, significantly increasing their salaries and opportunities. In 2019, MIT D-Lab was contracted by USAID to research Laboratoria’s online bootcamp program in order to identify barriers and enablers for women to successfully complete remote learning programs. The way the women participants see it, the most important enablers are the support network, financial resources, and physical resources that Laboratoria provides their students. In addition, the life skills, emotional intelligence, and growth mindset that Laboratoria weaves into the program are critical enablers.

Though coding bootcamps for girls and women are increasingly common, study after study confirms that the tech sector is dominated by men and machismo. Laboratoria’s program prepares their students for the gender imbalance by spending considerable time helping them get to know themselves, learn to deal with stress, and develop self-confidence. “I have never been in a place where they talk so much about self-esteem,” says Jeanelle, one of the participants, “This has been a wonderful experience.”

The program initially organizes the participants in teams of eight squads. “Each of us has to take responsibility at some time for our group,” explains Maca. “We do a series of, I guess you would say, bonding experiences, with our group, and one by one we have to take turns to plan and lead those activities.” Through the surveys and interviews, what emerges is that the Laboratoria coding bootcamp provides a safe space among other women where they can learn difficult technical skills as well as important life skills. Women identify relationships with other participants and support from Laboratoria’s coaches as key enablers. “Our squads are like a sisterhood; you can share without judgment.” This solidarity and closeness is carefully fostered by Laboratoria and it gives the participants communal support to keep going when they get discouraged and overwhelmed by learning code.

Most of the women report finding Laboratoria’s andragogical approach of self-directed learning challenging, particularly in the beginning. Even so, in the five interviews I did for this blog post, all of the women acknowledged that they had learned a great deal from this approach. Overall, the confidence built through self-directed, self-paced learning gives the participants a growth mindset, instilling in them a curiosity to learn and the ability to confidently tackle challenges. “As the projects simulate a work environment, they often have a hard time when they begin; they get really stressed when they think they are not doing as well as the others,” says Daysi, one of the coding trainers. Rather than a traditional class format, over the course of the six-month bootcamp, the participants progress through a set of more or less six coding projects, each successively harder, using online resources to move ahead.

Self-directed learning is scary at first and runs counterculture to a lot of the way people are taught in school. “It’s a different way of learning,” says Maca, one of the participants. We really need to find our way. Some people like things explained to them and they feel stuck. We talk to the coaches each week and they give us feedback on the projects. They are accessible but they don’t give us the solutions; they guide us on how to find them. When we don’t know things, we go to our companions and ask for help.”

Daysi affirms that the women have a hard time, but she notes that after a month and a half, a transition begins: “They begin to self-organize and collaborate with each other and learn from each other. As the projects go on, they feel better. They begin to resolve things themselves, and only ask very specific directed questions. Then we can help them plan their way; we help them attack their problems and learn to plan realistically.”

The support from coaches and other participants enable women to build confidence and community and the soft skills enable them to manage stress and build self awareness  but the organization has also paid close attention to providing more practical enablers. The online course provides women flexibility in their schedules and they have access to a host of resources: “We have the resources we need to work at our own pace,” says Jimena. “We get these resources from web pages, YouTube videos. They teach us the cutting edge of what is happening in the field.”

They get very practical help on how to manage time, and the coaches keep a close eye on their progress, Daysi explains: “From the beginning of the project, they make a weekly plan of what they will do, their goal and their daily tasks. We [the coaches] can then see if people are blocked or need help.” In the interviews, women reiterate how supportive the coaches are and how helpful the weekly sessions can be. However, several women interviewed suggested that Laboratoria hire more coaches or provide more one-on-one sessions as they feel they need more support and the slots they can request are limited.

The deeper challenges that women face in the program seem to be rooted in larger life issues related to their gender roles and their economic status. The participants have to be able to support themselves for the six-months of the program. For some women, that is a huge stretch as it means betting on a future job with a better salary to repay loans from institutions or relatives while they complete the bootcamp. Laboratoria will provide loans to women who qualify, but a lot of women still struggle. In many of the interviews, women call out gender roles, particularly motherhood, as challenges. “Mothers seem to find it more difficult,” comments one participant. “Would there be a way to have a bootcamp spread over more time for mothers?” asks another. “Could a coding bootcamp for mothers be scheduled around school and vacation times,” wonders a third. Given their constricted schedules, many women interviewed for the study explained that mothers of young children get particularly stressed around scheduling work on zoom with their squads or other participants.

Laboratoria clearly does what they can to address the logistic challenges created by women’s traditional gender roles of mother, housewife, and caregiver. It might be worth their looking at some of the suggestions women have and engaging mothers in co-designing something that might work better for them. Laboratoria’s attempts to address the inequality of gender roles seem most focused on developing self-knowledge and confidence to overcome internalizing feelings of inadequacy or damaging gender stereotypes and giving their students support and tools to cope with stress and anxiety. A key part of that is access to financially accessible counseling and therapy that Laboratoria offers to women through contracts with a network of psychologists, many of whom credit it with setting them on a path of self-knowledge.

The more intangible enablers in the program seem to be the most profound because they are transformative. The women interviewed recognize that the program gives them resources to know themselves and address gender-related and non gender-related challenges. While tangible enablers like access to a computer, loans, and internet are all important, it seems that Laboratoria has understood what is essential: helping women build a solid bulwark of confidence and fostering a strong community. These essential elements sustain women through intense technical learning experiences and prepare them to see themselves anew.

About the author

Martha Thompson is a lecturer and Humanitarian Innovation program specialist at MIT D-Lab.

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