March 24, 2023 / Updated on March 27, 2023
Grassroots Mimmit Koodaa (Women Code) To Bring Gender Equity
Your Fitness Accessory Says You’re Sick
I met Milja Köpsi, director of Mimmit Koodaa (Women Code), a division of not-for-profit Software E-business Finland Association (Ohjelmisto- ja e-business ry), in a ladies’ room, of all places, in a hotel in Joensuu, Finland, two months ago. She was one of the keynote speakers at the Regional Council of North Karelia New Year’s celebration which was being held at the hotel, and I was a guest among hundreds.
Our conversation quickly turned to a fitness gadget that indicated its female users were sick when they were instead experiencing menstruation. How could something so fundamental be misdiagnosed? It was because the product was developed with men’s physical and health data, and programmed mostly by men. If the device could not function for such a normal health condition, how could it track complex health measures and provide meaningful services to female users? The diagnostic error was not intentional nor malicious. It just didn’t occur to the developers, because they never experienced menses.
Increasingly our lives are intertwined with algorithms- and AI-enabled services and products. How do we make the functionalities built into our daily lives free of biases, errors, or even life-threatening events, and safely cater to diverse populations? Make the creators of the codes and algorithms mirror the reality of society’s diversity. UNWomen states, “Bringing women and other marginalized groups into technology results in more creative solutions and has greater potential for innovations that meet women’s needs.”
The purpose of the Mimmit Koodaa program is “to increase gender equality in the Finnish software industry by breaking the stereotype that coding is only for men. The core of the program is to provide easily accessible coding workshops free of charge for women who are interested but have no previous experience in it.”
Ms. Köpsi explained to me the program is for those not only in their 20s, but in their 30s, 40s and 50s. She pointed to a lady in her 40s who just stepped out of a ladies’s room cube and proudly announced, “She is one of the people who took the Mimmit Koodaa program, and become a software engineer switching from a non-tech field!”
I was impressed. At the same time, targeting mid-career women for the program struck me as extremely unique, as most such initiatives seem to be geared towards children and youth. Ms. Köpsi said, “We have a huge lack of talent in the technology companies. These mid-career people bring rich experiences and skills, in project management, communications, and expertise in other industries.”
Ms. Köpsi herself does not have a STEM background. In fact, when she chose computer science as an optional subject in middle school, the student counselor suggested that she, as a girl, switch to typing and free up her place for a boy. To hear of such an incident happening in Finland’s very recent past is startling because this nation is ranked the world’s top #2 according to World Economic Forum’s “The Global Gender Gap Report 2022.” Her background makes her all the more ideal for this job. She pours her passion offering low-threshold tools to women who want to learn and switch careers to ICT. “I am the target audience,” she laughed.
The Mimmit Koodaa, backed by technology companies and schools such as Academic Work Academy, Accenture, Accountor, AWS, digital, DNA, Ericsson, IBM, Laurea, FINTech, Microsoft, Nokia, Siili, Terveystalo, Visma, Wolt and Zalando, offers programming courses, certificate-programs, workshops, webinars, role model videos, blogs, in-person and virtual events. During the first year, 3,500 people participated in the program. In 2019, it brought 5,000 women to coding. In 2022, 6,190 people registered for webinars and workshops. Full-day virtual events attracted over 1,000 unique visits each. Today 10,000 women are active in the Mimmit Koodaa program. (They are impressive numbers as Finland’s total population is about 5.5 million.)
Every Day is Gender Equity Day
On March 8, 2023 the world celebrated the International Women’s Day with the campaign theme of #EmbraceEquity.
I think the gender issue must be advanced every day in every aspect of our lives. In 2022 the global gender gap has been closed by 68.1%. At the current rate of progress, it will take 132 years to reach full parity. 132 years!?
What are we waiting for?
Products and Services Programmed with Unconscious Biases
As women are significantly underrepresented in STEM fields, services and products developed with biased data utterly fail women as end-users. On average, women account for less than 35 per cent of people working in the global Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) sector. (Source: Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland “The Algorithm for Gender Equality”)
The percentage of women graduates in ICT is 1.7% compared to 8.2% of men graduates, and in Engineering and Manufacturing the same figures are 6.6% for women and 24.6% for men. (Source: World Economic Forum’s “The Global Gender Gap Report 2022”)
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its algorithms, as currently designed, could quickly multiply the ineffectiveness of end-products.
In the AI field, women are severely underrepresented, with one study finding that only 12% of leading machine-learning researchers were women. (Source: Catalyst / Gender Bias in AI)
Past examples of technology-enabled services failing women, like Apple’s personal assistant Siri not finding abortion clinics to more recent OpenAI’s ChatGPT’s possible issue like “Typing a prompt involving a CEO, for example, could prompt a response assuming that the individual is white and male.” Now Google has joined the segment with Bard, its new AI chatbot tool to compete with ChatGPT. Forbes recently reported that “both OpenAI and Google acknowledge their chatbots aren’t perfect and may say inaccurate or offensive things from time to time.”
Isn’t this like letting all the airplanes take off before all the safety mechanisms have been tested and perfected? The magnitude of the problems permeates, multiplies and compounds throughout our daily interactions with ubiquitous things designed with data that include developers’ unconscious biases.
Trailblazers and Connectors
When Vlada Laukkonen could not find a job after graduating from university with a master’s degree in Audio Visual Media Culture, she decided to teach herself coding, and had many questions. Ms. Laukkonen remembers, “In 2016-17, not so much was available like today, for example, free online courses or Mimmit Koodaa.” When she was looking for an answer on the Internet posting her question, people responded with, “The question is stupid. Don’t you know?” One day she asked online, “Is there anyone like me?” listing her questions and frustrations. Instantly she received 200 helpful or sympathetic responses. On the same day, she founded the online support community LevelUP Koodarit. Ms. Laukkonen said, “I needed a safe place where I can ask dumb questions, and I felt many women needed that safe place too.” Five years later, LevelUP Koodarit has over 4,700 members.
She also reflects that she launched LevelUP Koodarit at the right time, and credits Linda Liukas, founder of Rails Girls, a site designed to help women learn basic programming established in 2010 in Helsinki, for creating a solid foundation for women like her. Ms. Laukkonen said of Ms. Liukas, “She is a pioneer.” Rails Girls today is a global platform with chapters in over 160 countries run by volunteers. Ms. Liukas also broke conventional barriers when she raised over $380,000 vs. the goal of $10,000 in 2013 on Kickstarter to publish “Hello Ruby” a picture book and a workbook rolled into one which shows young children the concept of programming through play-based activities without actually learning to code. Since then, “Hello Ruby” has become a series and is available in more than 30 languages. Ms. Liukas went on to design a new playground with a computer theme in the district of Ruoholahti, Helsinki. Just like the Ruby books, the playground has no actual computers or digital displays. Children can get acquainted with the world of computers through play and being physically active.
While self-learning coding online, Ms. Laukkonen thought technologies were advancing very quickly and it was unpractical to spend many years at university to get another degree. She thought, “Tech companies have the latest know-how. Why don’t they teach people like me?” In 2018, she heard through the grapevine that Software E-business Finland Association was interested in boosting women’s activities. She approached Rasmus Roiha, managing director of the association, and Ms. Köpsi asking if they would help her access the tech companies and she would bring LevelUp Koodarit members.
Women Are Interested in Technology
Mr. Roiha and Ms. Köpsi brainstormed and met with some member corporations. The outcome was the association’s collaboration with eight of their member companies to give workshops to women. Mr. Roiha said, “It would be great if 100 women came.” On the first day, 800 women were in the queue. Mr. Roiha and Ms. Köpsi knew right away women were interested in technology and all they had to do was to give them opportunities. Ms. Laukkonen was a speaker at the very first of these sessions. The Mimmit Koodaa was born.
Re-skilling and Lifelong Learning
While running LevelUP Koodarit and studying coding independently, Ms. Laukkonen landed on a dream job as web developer at Lasten ja nuorten keskus ry (LNK – The Finnish Association for Children and Youth). She said, “The organization has a long history, but it acts like a start-up. I can propose ideas and make them happen.” She taught herself how to build a mobile game for children for the organization.
She also co-authored Kaikki Koodaa (Everything Codes: Update yourself – A practical guide to current digital skills) with Maria von Kügelgen published in 2022. The book has been sent to hundreds of high school students and all study counselors in Finland.
Today, Ms. Laukkonen is studying psychology while she is on a parental leave with her 11 month old child. She said, “I encourage people to connect programming with another field.”
From Warehouse Manager to Software Engineer While Parenting 2 and 4 Year Old Daughters
Mari Sinkkonen’s life-changing adventure began at the Mimmit Koodaa event in Helsinki on February 14, 2020 when she heard Ms. Köpsi speak. Ms. Sinkkonen recalled, “The event was an eye opener. Milja (Köpsi) is genuine and shows emotions. She is infectious. I heard inspiring stories all day. I was surrounded with people like me, women who were excited to learn new things.”
Ms. Sinkkonen had been interested in technology earlier in her life, but she said, “In the 1990s, there weren’t many women in the field, and it was not the right time for me to pursue.” She had been a nurse for three years and was a warehouse manager at the time at an importer and wholesale distribution company where she had worked for eight years. She was also the mother of two young daughters, age two and four. She said, “Being a parent is the most precious thing.” At the same time, she remembered wondering, “Could I be something else?” “I was feeling depressed as I didn’t see many opportunities. It was scary,” she said.
But the Mimmit Koodaa event gave her courage and focus. After some consultations with her partner, and her brother who works in IT, Ms. Sinkkonen decided to quit her comfortable job with a steady income and commit to studying full time. She wanted to find a job that she loved. She took courses that are offered free to everyone at The Finnish Institute of Technology (FITech), founded in 2017 by seven Finnish universities of technology, Technology Industries of Finland (Teknologiateollisuus) and the Academic Engineers and Architects in Finland TEK. Later University of Jyväskylä and University of Eastern Finland have joined FITech.
She also took the free, six month, university-level “Highway 2 Code” program through Vaasa University of Applied Sciences, which is financed by the Ministry of Education and Culture of Finland as a part of the nation’s push to accelerate ICT talent development.
All the while, she kept going to Mimmit Koodaa’s workshops that were offered by tech companies, gained more practical IT knowledge and met supportive people. Ms. Sinkkonen said, “It was amazing how many people wanted to reach me and wanted to encourage me at these events.” She added, “I owe so much to Mimmit Koodaa.”
Today Ms. Sinkkonen is software engineer at Tecnotree Corporation, a digital business management solution provider for digital communication service providers. She said, “My partner is proud. He encouraged me when I lost confidence time to time.” Her daughters are five and seven year old now. She has a hybrid work model so she can be home working three days a week when they come home from daycare and preschool. Ms. Sinkkonen’s voice sparkled as she said, “It’s positive that my daughters saw what I went through. I set an example to show them that life is not set in one stone. They can pursue what they want.”
You Don’t Have to be a Programmer to Work in ICT
Another myth is that technology always equals programming. Ms. Köpsi said, “People don’t understand what technology means. Tech companies need people to develop concept and to design user interface, for example.” She explained, “Light hits a screen, and colors on it change. They need someone to figure out how to make the information on the screen legible for those who often use devices outdoors.”
Niina Ketunnen is Customer Coordinator at Cloudriven, a Microsoft Partner that provides cloud services to businesses. She liaises between the clients and the company’s internal team, and she loves the job.
She first heard about Mimmit Koodaa in 2020, and attended a virtual event where she met many people from the IT industry not only coders but people with different job titles. She said, “The Mimmit Koodaa program was very effective. It was important for me to meet different women working in IT, and they were like me.”
Initially Ms. Ketunnen thought of becoming a programmer. After exploring options, she realized that she could capitalize on her multi-years of customer service experiences and what she studied at university, tourism, in the technology sector. She said, “I learned about the openness of the industry.” At both Cloudriven and at the previous technology company she worked, where there are more men than women, “I never feel lesser than men,” she said.
To those who are contemplating a career switch, she said, “Go for it. Sure, I had moments of doubt myself. ‘Am I good enough?’ ‘Can I do this?’ You just need to silence your inner critic and ask for help.”
Funding is a Challenge
The Mimmit Koodaa program is funded by corporate members and the parent association’s funding that comes from its corporate members. Software E-business Finland Association works with 600 companies. The North Karelia project, Mimmit Koodaa’s first regional initiative to both bring women into the ICT field and to boost the local economy, has been supported by the regional strategic program POKAT 2021 fund, the European Social Fund, and the regional Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment.
“The financing is a challenge,” Ms. Köpsi admits. Still she is optimistic, and added, “Companies are becoming aware of our activities and effectiveness, so more of them want to support it. This model is working.”
Asked how her partner has responded to her role at Mimmit Koodaa, Ms. Köpsi replied, “He is my source of superpower. He wants change, equity and equality, and supports my work with all his heart. He does not understand all that I do daily, but he is interested and listens. He takes charge when I don’t have time or energy to take care of me, or home, or cook, or laundry. He keeps my spirit high and makes me laugh when things are too heavy or difficult. He tells me that I can conquer whatever needed. We are a team.”
Creative Solutions and Innovations for Truly Equitable Society
The women in this story are fiercely independent team players. Yes, the oxymoron is intended. They are true to themselves while they ask many questions, more importantly, ask for help and extend assistance to others. They are creative, resourceful, open-minded and focused. Before they landed on jobs in the ICT sector, and in Linda Liukas’ case, a children’s book author, they already demonstrated traits that helped them find solutions and paths that led them to innovations, i.e. new careers. The patterns of their thinking and action foretell their current and future successes for themselves and those around them no matter their positions. Their grassroots activities have been bringing meaningful changes to their lives, their families, colleagues, communities, business partners and customers.
They are also supported by Finland’s critical social infrastructures like free-to-affordable university-level continuing education, universal childcare and parental leave.
In a truly equitable society, everyone is included not only for the sake of inclusion, but for that individual to actively participate and bring her or his unique creative solutions and innovations to better the society as a whole.
Interested in finding out more about Mimmit Koodaa?
Join the semi-annual virtual event and meet Mimmits on April 21, 2023!
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