Latin America leads the way for women working in STEM

By March 8, 2019

Thirteen-year-old Wendy Estefanía Giraldo Estrada, from the Antioquian municipality of Rionegro, likes building and programming robots.

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ForoMET Medellín 2019. Photo by Sophie Foggin.

“It has always been thought of as only for men,” she told Latin America Reports at ForoMET Medellín, an event designed to celebrate women’s achievements in the fields of science and information technology, and promote gender diversity in the industry. “I would like to change this thought process.”

Giraldo Estrada was given the opportunity to learn about robotics thanks to a programme that arrived at her school, Institución Educativa Santa Bárbara, through Medellin’s local government in 2017.

‘Girl Powered’ is a programme offered to girls between the ages of 12-15, subsidised by the state Sub-Secretary of Science, Technology and Innovation (CTI), to empower girls working in technology through robotics.

Every Saturday, the all-female group gathers for a robotics class and to work on projects they will eventually present at robotics competitions. So far, the IE Santa Bárbara girls have participated in competitions in Kentucky in the United States and at Medellin’s prestigious Marymount college.

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A team from the ‘Girl Powered’ Colombia programme. Image courtesy of Mónica Sánchez.

Speaking to Latin America Reports, Mónica Sánchez, partner of REC Foundation – the NGO driving ‘Girl Powered’ in Colombia – explained the programme’s reasoning behind having all-female Colombian teams.

“The idea isn’t that we only want teams of girls, although in countries like ours, teams of only girls are more secure environments for their development,” she pointed out.

“The reasoning behind [it] is for them to develop all of their talent without feeling intimidated because, naturally, women have to learn to stand up for themselves… but not all girls have been brought up in a character-building environment. So, at Girl Powered we aim to develop their innate talents in science and technology with emphasis on robotics.”

Making themselves heard in a male-dominated field is a challenge women working in scientific research face on a daily basis, according to UNESCO’s 2018 Women in Science report, which indicates that female researchers represent just 28.8% of the workforce worldwide.

However, when these statistics are broken down by region, the number of females working in these sectors in Latin America and the Caribbean is in fact notably higher than the global standard. As of 2015, the regional average for Latin America and the Caribbean was calculated at 45.4%.

Second only to Central Asia, according to these statistics, Latin America has some of the highest numbers of female researchers and investigators in the world.

Given what it means to be a woman in Latin America, where rates of gender-based sexual violence are also the highest in the world, these statistics are particularly impressive.

This is one of the points that female scientists, entrepreneurs and researchers set out to highlight at last month’s ForoMET. Amidst discussions of technology, entrepreneurship and science; women, young girls and (admittedly very few) men were present to recognise and honour women’s advances in these fields not only in Colombia, but across the region as a whole.