Staying up late into the night, Lilia Lobato Martinez watched endless YouTube videos to teach herself the computer code she used to help build her prize-winning Ool app for volunteers in Guadalajara, Mexico.
In her country, she is usually the only woman in tech competitions, which often hand out men’s T-shirts to the winners.
Now the 18-year-old electrical engineering student is using the $10,000 she won for her app in last year’s international girls-only Technovation competition to further develop Ool, which has so far linked over 1,000 volunteers with 20 non-profit groups in Mexico’s second-biggest city.
“A lot of people were constantly complaining everything’s wrong, but I found that no one was going out to the street to volunteer,” said Lobato. “So I decided to develop an app that’s a compendium of all the non-profit organisations, so we can learn what Mexico is building.”
With plans to eventually set up a centre to teach children to code, she said many of her female friends shied away from IT development because it was male-dominated. Only four out of 40 students on her degree course are women, she pointed out.
Across Latin America, the participation of girls and women in technology and science has lagged far behind men, experts say.
And while awareness of the need to correct the imbalance is growing, social and economic pressures mean many are still pushed into other areas or expected to start work straight after school rather than going into higher education.
“Boys think it’s easy for them and they expect to be smart in technology… it’s not expected for girls, and that’s reinforced by the education system quite often,” said Gloria Bonder, Buenos Aires-based UNESCO chair on women, science and technology in Latin America.
The portrayal of women in the media, and a lack of role models also contribute to making it a system-wide problem, added Bonder, who is working on a Central American pilot project to incorporate gender equality into science and technology education.
While 44 percent of all science research positions – including social sciences – in the region are held by women, they are under-represented in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), according to UNESCO.
For example, in Peru and Colombia, around a third of natural science researchers are women, but they account for just a quarter of engineering and technology researchers.
Now a number of projects are striving to improve access for girls and give them the skills and confidence to compete in those jobs.
One of these is the Laboratoria coding academy in Lima, which spots talent “where no one else is looking”, said its chief executive, Mariana Costa Checa. More than 1,000 women applied for 70 places at its intensive bootcamp where candidates from low-income backgrounds train as front-end web developers.
The application process involves a series of rigorous tests, alongside interviews with candidates’ families to reduce the drop-out rate for the course, which also runs in Santiago, Mexico City and the Peruvian city of Arequipa, and helps participants land jobs with companies such as IBM.
She expects some Laboratoria graduates will go on to develop technical solutions for problems in their communities.
“The first thing we look for is a job, because it gives them economic stability, and for our average student, it triples their income,” said Costa.
It also gives them “a new perspective in life”, she added. “It starts changing the way they look at the world – and I think there’s enormous value in then bringing that change to their own communities.”
With many girls from poor families under pressure to start earning as soon as they finish school, Rebeca Vargas, president of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, said most of those who signed up for the international STEM mentoring programme she helped set up in Mexico’s Puebla state did so without telling their parents.
Nearly all are now studying STEM subjects at college or university.
“Some of the girls we worked with last year had to sell bread and food on the street to be able to earn money to eat,” said Vargas, whose foundation developed the programme with Mexico’s public education secretariat and the New York Academy of Sciences.
Families often expect girls to pay their way at home but not to seek senior positions at corporations or well-paid jobs. “They’re supposed to work but they’re not supposed to be educated,” Vargas said.
Wendy Arellano Martinez, who won a scholarship to study biotechnology engineering at the prestigious Monterrey Technology Institute after the mentoring programme, is now part of a team developing a project to make spectacle frames from recycled plastic bottles for older people on low incomes.
“We’re going to be looking for funds from organisations or foundations to help us distribute our products to people who need them but don’t have the resources,” said the 18-year-old student from Puebla. “I want to give the same support that I received.”