Of mice and (only) men

Why are female coders so rare in Belgium?

Nov 19, 2018 · 26 min read
© Colin Anderson​​ — Getty Images

🇫🇷 This article was originally published in French on October 18th 2018.

A lot has happened to me in the last five years. I have, in turn, gone from being unemployed to being a student, then from student to student-entrepreneur, only to finally dare becoming a full-time entrepreneur. Since then, my startup has exceeded one million downloads in just 1 year, a first fundraising is approaching fast and the future is looking bright. One aspect, however, has never really changed. Whether it is in a computer science auditorium, in a startup incubator or during any of my sleepless nights on GitHub, one constant has always remained: an almost exclusively male environment.

Even though the lack of diversity in our industry is nothing new and has already led to extensive press coverage all around the world, it might come as a surprise that Belgium is by far the most impacted by this issue.
In fact, according to the OECD, 92.2% of our ICT graduates are male.

How can we explain that Belgium is ranking last? What does that say about Belgians and why is this a problem?
These are some of the questions I’ll be trying to answer today.

Chapter I : When science belongs to men

Chapter II : Women in Tech

Chapter III : Belgian Inertia

Conclusion : Diversity? What for?

© Khoa Vu — Getty Images

I — When science belongs to men

The case of Belgium and that of computer science are both very unusual. Before we take a look at what makes them unique, let us first put things back in context.

Three pillars

On a global scale, women only represent 35% of all STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students and only 28% of all researchers. A troubling study from the London School of Economics reveals that while young European girls usually start to show interest in science around age 11, most of them turn their back on it at age 15 (between 12 and 14 in Belgium). This period, also marked by puberty, seems to be at the heart of the problem. As the notion of gender becomes entrenched in them and distinctions between boys and girls become more pronounced, the effect of stereotypes is also becoming more noticeable.

Even though the many studies conducted on this subject all rejected the idea that women are biologically less gifted in science, it is clear that this cliché remains a tough nut to crack. On the contrary, it has repeatedly been demonstrated that a child’s environment plays a key role in the learning process and in the child’s perception of their abilities. The persistence of these stereotypes is therefore a real problem in that they affect girls’ confidence, self-image and interest in science.

Research conducted on 475,000 students in 67 countries has shown that the subject in which boys perform best is by far science. On the other hand, girls are systematically better at reading than they are in math or science. In other words: when a girl has the same level as a boy in science, she will, on average, be much better at reading than he is. This is a vicious circle in the sense that what is mistakenly perceived as a “weak point” for girls contributes to shaping certain stereotypes that, in turn, lead young girls to believe that science is not for them.

It is thus no surprise that, as early as primary school, children who associate mathematics with the male gender will get higher grades if they are boys and lower grades if they are girls. Similarly, several studies have shown that teachers tend to systematically evaluate girls more harshly in science and mathematics than their male counterparts. These same studies also highlight the tendency of young girls to evaluate themselves almost exclusively on the basis of their teacher’s perception, which is not the case for boys. As we know, placing lower expectations on a student will generally lead to poorer performance.

This difference in treatment by the teaching staff is by no means exceptional and actually reflects a societal trend. It is, in fact, firmly rooted in our traditions that science, practicality and physical strength belong to men, while the concern for others, gentleness and literary finesse tend to be perceived as feminine traits.

Another, more common example is toys. While boys are entitled to LEGOs (which are used to build, develop the mind, …) girls, on the other hand, will usually get a doll, which won’t serve any purpose other than playing with it.

Finally, the family circle also plays an important role in shaping children’s attitudes towards science. Parents who are more traditionalist and treat boys and girls unequally will generally transmit negative stereotypes. In the context of this article, I met several women who are either studying or working in tech. Every single one of them told me they received unconditional support from their parents. On the other hand, Nathalie, the young geek with whom I talked about video games for two hours, gave up studying engineering because her parents felt it “wasn’t for girls”…

Family, school and society are thus the three main pillars identified by UNESCO as shaping young people’s perception of STEM fields. While some of the examples mentioned here are less serious than others, the main takeaway here is that all these elements form a system in which men are invariably given an advantage. Even though men and women are born equal in rights, we have to ask ourselves how many young women with abilities for science have been lost because of these prejudices. Reversing the trend will not be easy and will take time. A long, long time.

The fruits of determinism

When the time comes for young women to choose the path they want to take in life, it’s no surprise that they are once again influenced by those clichés. It is indeed generally recommended to make your choice based on the subjects in which you excel. At this point, their decision making is often swayed by a self-selection bias, which, according to the same UNESCO report, is the main reason why women drop out of STEM studies.

These percentages vary greatly depending on the field of study and territory, which is symptomatic of the cultural nature of the phenomenon.

A fascinating research paper published this year by APS tells us that if students relied solely on their science abilities to choose their postgraduate program at age 15, there would be parity (between 40 and 55% of women, depending on the country). On top of that, if we take their interest in science and the pleasure it gives them into account, the balance would then lean a little towards men (35–45%). Finally, if we assume the decision is also based on the subject in which the student is performing best, we would then be close to the actual numbers (25–35%) (illustration). The issue is that, as explained above, girls are conditioned by their environment to perform better in reading skills than in science class.

The privilege of choice

Some of you might have noticed that one of the countries with the highest proportion of women among ICT graduates is none other than Saudi Arabia. The study I mentioned earlier by Dr. David C. Geary & Dr. Gijsbert Stoet describes what they refer to as “the gender equality paradox in STEM education”. Indeed, it appears that the most gender-equitable countries, such as Iceland or Norway, all have a relatively low proportion of women in STEM fields. On the other hand, countries where women are generally disadvantaged, such as Algeria or Saudi Arabia, seem to see a remarkably high participation of women in STEM fields.

Given their high level of education and renowned gender equality, one might expect Finnish women to be well represented in STEM fields. This is not the case at all. If there’s any correlation between gender equality and the presence of women among STEM graduates, it’s actually the opposite. This correlation, which is rather worrying at first sight, does not imply causation. One must remember that the most egalitarian countries are also those offering the best living conditions and with the most productive economies. The real paradox is therefore the one that links economic prosperity with the absence of women in STEM fields.

Figure 3 | Sources : UNESCO Institute for Statistics (2015), World Bank (2015 GDP per capita with constant 2010 US$)

To explain this paradox, one possibility put forward by researchers is that women living in an adverse economic context are more attracted by STEM jobs because of the higher wages. Young Finnish women being less concerned about money than Moroccan women, they are able to choose their field of study based on personal interests and affinities. The problem is that, as we have seen, women are conditioned by their environment to associate science with men.

For this reason, rich countries tend to produce fewer female graduates in STEM fields than underprivileged countries, where higher education is often seen by young women as the only key to social mobility. In other words, a prosperous economic context generally contributes to broadening the range of possibilities, including that of women. It should not be concluded that increased gender equality discourages girls from studying science, but rather that it allows them to choose the studies with which they identify the most.

Heads buried in the sand

In light of these findings, it is interesting to observe how some people are outright refusing to acknowledge that we are dealing with a form of systemic discrimination. While preparing this article, I ran on several occasions into people who assured me that these subjects shouldn’t be discussed too much, at the risk of actually making things worse.

The reason behind this denial is quite simple: to admit that these discriminatory practices are commonplace is in fact the same as revealing the inconsistencies between, on the one hand, the egalitarian ideology at the root of our society and, on the other hand, the burden of patriarchy on the education of young girls. By pointing this out, not only do we reveal a certain determinism but also the privilege of some. These people feel that their free will is being called into question and it hurts. Thus, in order to avoid questioning the foundations of our society, in order to achieve the coexistence of equal opportunity and patriarchy, their solution is to either deny everything or to claim that the determinism to which women are subject is no social construct, but a simple biological fact.

The ubiquitous and institutionalized belief that men and women are essentially conditioned to follow different paths in their lives is particularly pernicious in post-materialistic societies which, like ours, celebrate individuality and self-expression. Determinism is then greatly amplified, thereby encouraging men and women to actively realize gender stereotypes.

All this contributes to maintaining a situation where the STEM professions, which are among the best paid and most respected, are in fact reserved for men and where, at a time when there is a shortage of STEM personnel all over the world, employing this untapped pool of potential scientists would be more than appreciated…

© École Polytechnique CC BY-SA 2.0

II - Women in Tech

Let us get to the topic at hand. Since its inception, the IT world has been a source of fantasies. After having revolutionized many industries, we are now promised that it will allow cars to drive themselves, medicine to produce human tissues and physicists to simulate the behavior of matter down to the atomic level. Overall, new technologies are expected to bring us into a safer, faster and more connected world…

It goes without saying that the IT sector plays an important role in our economy. In 2015, it represented 3.84% of Belgian GDP and 4.4% of the labour market (compared to 3.7% at European level). Demand is much higher than supply on the ICT labour market. So much so that a shortage of 500,000 workers is predicted across the EU in 2020. In addition to its growth, the sector remains very accessible, given that a significant proportion of employers do not require degrees. All these facts contribute to making ICT a formidable vehicle for social mobility.

Thus, in a world where IT is more than ever at the heart of our society and economy, where the proportion of women in scientific professions has gradually increased over the past forty years… why is it that the proportion of women in the ICT sector is in such sharp decline?

Figure 4 | Source: National Science Foundation, American Association of Medical Colleges, National Center for Education Statistics

In order to answer this question, I was able to rely on the work of Isabelle Collet, a computer scientist by training and research professor on gender issues and educational science at the University of Geneva. Her full interview is available in French in the second episode of my podcast:

IBM Type 704 Electronic Data Processing Machine, March 1957

Inglorious pioneers

In order to explain this phenomenon of masculinisation, we must look back to the 1960s, a time when computers were still full of mysteries and far beyond the reach of the general public. In those days, manipulating a computer was mainly reminiscent of the typewriter, which was itself feminized because it was assimilated with the sewing machine. It required meticulousness, patience and precision, qualities that were associated with women. In addition, the first places to be equipped were banks or large administrations, perfectly compatible with the image we had of women at the time. Last but not least, no prestige was associated with these professions. For all these reasons, it was natural for IT jobs to be perceived as feminine.

Woman in the kitchen while her husband is working. (Apple II ad, 1977)

It was only two decades later that the microcomputer arrived. The 8-ton monsters were then replaced with computers that could be used at home. The general public’s image of IT was disrupted.

It allowed you to manage the family budget, use word processing, play breakout, … At that point, it was safe to say it: IT was the future. This means the personal computer was perceived as a tool of power. Since power belonged to men, it was only normal for manufacturers to target them explicitly in their advertising campaigns.

Alpha Release

The figure of the hacker is often depicted as being at the source of the microcomputer and the Internet. With the democratization of the personal computer, hackers find themselves propelled to the forefront and become subjects of a whole series of fantasies and urban legends. They are being described as geniuses capable of breaking into any system; they are thought to be the masters of this new computerized world. Hollywood immediately seized this opportunity to turn them into the symbol we know today: films like Tron (1982), War Games (1983) or Hackers (1995) and The Matrix (1999), all tell the story of a young man who’s a bit too skilled with computers and faces the consequences of his actions.

Computer pioneers, hackers ​ — ​ Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds et Steve Wozniak are still being revered today.

It is essential to see that this thirst for power, this control of technology and this rebellious attitude are all traits that our society defines as fundamentally masculine. Similarly, elevating these bearded nerds to the status of icons was in fact tantamount to inscribing in the collective unconscious the idea that computer scientists are all socially unfit males.

Let me be clear: if the small hacker community was somewhat representative in the 1980s, this is no longer the case today. The IT professions have since diversified considerably and, contrary to what many people think, the average computer scientist does not spend his days coding all by themselves in the dark while eating pizza. On the contrary, they have to meet with clients on a regular basis to take note of their requests, can sometimes spend hours in meetings and must constantly be trained. In this respect, the job of a software developer requires much more social capabilities than that of a secretary.

These stereotypes are a tough nut to crack. Several studies have shown that women, when asked about their perception of computer scientists, tend to mention clichés such as wearing glasses, being neglected, unemotional or clumsy. Overall, the image that emerges from these surveys is that of an asocial man who favors technology over human contact. Given that these traits are fundamentally incompatible with the roles assigned to women in our societies, it is no surprise that women are a minority in the sector. The good news, however, is that the women surveyed became more interested once they were exposed to authentic representations of these jobs.

Press START to continue

Computing studies differ from other STEM studies in the sense that chemistry, biology, physics and math are taught in high school. Those that choose this path therefore generally do so after having discovered an affinity for computers outside of school. As a result, video games often serve as an indirect gateway to the world of computing.

Here’s the kicker: the so-called core gamers (those who make time to play, as opposed to those who only play when they can) are overwhelmingly male. Indeed, following the collapse of the video game industry in the early 1980s, video game publishers had to rethink their marketing strategy to target the male audience (the main consumers in the PC market) even more specifically ​ — ​ often through the use of sexist clichés. And just like that, this gateway to programming had been barred to women.

It’s at this point that the proportion of women among computer science students began to decline (see Figure 4), in part because of the stereotypes associated with these occupations, but also because computer science, which had become a promising field of study, suddenly attracted loads of male students, most of whom had grown up playing on the computer.

Silicon Valley (HBO, 2014)

“Fake geek girls”

While the aforementioned misconceptions about IT jobs have not really changed over the past thirty years, it is also interesting to notice how much the nerd communities themselves have integrated these stereotypes. To better understand the phenomenon called gatekeeping, let us take a glance at nerds and who they are.

Gatekeeping: When someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity.

Though the term “nerd” encompasses a wide variety of profiles, several recurring traits stand out. Introvert, dreamer and passionate, a nerd will generally find refuge in a culture of imagination (sci-fi, video games, comic books, role-playing games, …), in hard sciences or in computers​ ​ — ​ hobbies that belong to the abstract world, and which all share the ability to fascinate a small minority, while leaving the rest of the world completely indifferent.

In some aspects, the nerd identity also appears as “hollow”. Nerds are the antithesis of cool, they do not conform to the standards of traditional virility and they certainly are not popular in school. In response to this social distress, they will often want to escape to some other universe where they can be the absolute masters. This will allow them to uncover another scale of masculinity that values their mastery of technology and their in-depth knowledge of sci-fi.

This picture I’m painting raises several problems, starting with the fact that defining oneself (and one’s masculinity) mostly on the basis of one’s cultural consumption inevitably entails a significant loss of control over one’s identity. What on Earth happened to those Star Wars fans when a new trilogy featuring female and colored protagonists was released? How could one bring up the harassment campaigns suffered by the actors without describing them as a large-scale identity crisis?

Last but not least, the close relationship between nerd culture and masculinity inevitably leads to the rejection of women. On the one hand because their presence would interfere with the social grouping, and, on the other hand, because it would call their own manhood into question. In fact, the greater the gap between a geek girl and the male standard, the more likely it is that she will be considered an impostor. In other words: how could a nerd feel virile, how could his manhood remain intact if girls have “infiltrated” his community?

A ridiculous meme suggesting that suppressing one’s femininity is a requirement to be considered a “real geek”

While I might be exaggerating a little bit here (not all nerds are macho men), the main point I’m trying to get across is that gender issues are core to the very concept of “nerd”. It is therefore no surprise, for example, that the populist movements that are corrupting nerd communities (Gamergate, Comicsgate, …) are systematically revolving around themes like fear of identity loss and misogyny.

“No one is more arrogant towards women, more aggressive or contemptuous, than a man worried about his manhood.”​ — ​ Simone de Beauvoir

Hatred for fun

The lack of women in the IT sector is thus a multifaceted issue because, in addition to the erroneous stereotypes that prevent women from entering the industry, there are many examples of explicit sexism within the industry itself.

In order to collect testimonies, I reached a year ago to Abby Russell, producer for the video game press outlet GiantBomb. In her response, she explained that women are constantly being called into question in her industry and have to do twice as much as a man in order to be taken seriously. Ironically, someone clipped the video so they could publicly denigrate her on YouTube.

Similarly, Laure Lemaire (director of the Interface3 training center) told me she thought it was preferable for a female developer to be hired in a small IT department rather than in a large tech company, precisely because of these sexist behaviors.

“The Tech Industry’s Sexism Problem” — Wall Street Journal

Interest, recruit, socialize

While this misogyny certainly contributes to maintaining the status quo, it is important to note that it is itself the result of the lack of diversity in the sector. Correcting this will take time and will require significant changes, especially in the education sector. NTNU came up with three solutions:

  1. Awakening the interest of young girls
    As mentioned above, the majority of secondary school students (especially girls) have erroneous preconceptions about coding and assume it is not for them. To break down these stereotypes, the first step is to introduce them to programming under the right conditions. This can be done, for example, in the form of a workshop with students or by adding IT directly to the curriculum.
  2. Recruiting women directly
    Even when they are interested, young women may still be discouraged at the thought of entering a male-dominated field. Although the method is controversial, the introduction of quotas, for example, has proved very effective in alerting women that they are welcome. Other strategies include the use of female role models, advertising campaigns targeting women and the organization of non-mixed campus visits.
  3. Socialization ​ — ​ taking a step towards them
    Once they are registered, it is of course imperative that they do not wish to leave. Some of the actions that have worked for NTNU include the use of female teaching assistants, an emphasis on the usefulness of the curriculum in the professional life and ensuring that female students are not being marginalized in group projects.

Even though these methods may seem harmless at first glance, their results are phenomenal. In fact, the proportion of women among computer science students at NTNU has risen from 6% to 38% in one year. Similarly, Carnegie Mellon University managed to reach 48.5% women in 2016, following what they describe as twenty years of efforts in that direction. Their success is proof that the obstacles are mainly cultural and that they can be overcome.

Brussels Floral Carpet in 2008 © Wouter Hagens CC BY-SA 3.0

III — Belgian inertia

While the low representation of women among computer science students is a phenomenon that can be seen observed everywhere in the world, it must be noted that Belgium is ranking last. Why is it we are so affected by this phenomenon?

First of all, it is important to note that IT is not the only academic field concerned. In fact, in all the so-called “male” fields of study (>65% male students), the percentage of female students in Belgium is systematically lower than the European average, and when we are not ranking last (biology, chemistry, IT), it’s a very tight race (physics, civil engineering). It should also be noted that the same cannot be said for female-dominated sectors.

It is therefore appropriate to conclude that, whatever the cause of the problem, it is not specific to IT but to STEM fields in general. In fact, Belgian teenage girls appear to be even more likely than elsewhere to lose interest in science. Two phenomena are thus combined: on the one hand, the masculinisation of the IT sector, and on the other hand, what appears to be a repulsion of Belgian teenage girls for science. How can this be explained?

Figure 5 | The study is based on Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, United Kingdom. Source : Microsoft & London School of Economics.

First world problem

A first explanation could be our standard of living. As discussed above, an unfavorable economic context is proving to be a powerful driving force for girls to overcome their apprehensions about STEM studies. It is no coincidence that MolenGeek, located in Molenbeek, welcomes 40% of women in its coding school. It is no coincidence that Interface3 (a women-only coding school in Brussels) mainly welcomes students from immigrant backgrounds and modest social backgrounds. In both cases, the students’ main motivation is simply employment. Doing a “man’s job” is the least of your worries when you’re out of a job.

Figure 6 | These statistics were given to me by Bruxelles Formations (source, 2017). I’m also making the FOREM numbers available here. ULB stats: CREF (2014).

In our capital city, the correlation still holds true: the proportion of women following applied computer training (network administrator, Android, web developer, etc.) is much higher than that of female computer science students in university. In Brussels as elsewhere, disadvantaged populations appear to be the ones producing the most female ICT experts.

It should be noted, however, that this driving force is not as common in our neck of the woods. Switzerland, the Benelux and Austria have in common, in addition to a very small number of female computer science students, a lower unemployment rate than the European average as well as a relatively high GDP-PPP. Furthermore, with the Belgians and the Swiss being among the richest in Europe, our issue is at least in part a rich people’s problem.

More Cathodic than the Pope

Our economic situation is obviously not the only factor at stake, and it would be absurd not to highlight the cultural nature of the problem. For the barrier to be harder to overcome in Belgium, there must first be a barrier. Out of the three pillars I mentioned earlier, our schools, which are mainly Catholic in Belgium, caught my attention. In order to better appreciate the importance of Catholic education in our culture, we need to look back to the 19th century, when a Catholic Belgium declared its independence from the mainly Protestant Dutch occupier.

Episode des journées de Septembre 1830, Gustave Wappers

It is in this young Belgium that, faced with the need for a quality education, a series of initiatives were taken (often by the clergy) with the aim of building schools. Each educational project was then operated independently, and the intents of one congregation wasn’t that of another. This genesis explains the decentralized nature of our school system, as well as the fact that even today, the majority of Belgians (>60%) went to Catholic school.

From 1860 onwards, Catholics and Liberals clashed to realize their visions of what girls’ education should be like, with the ultimate goal being to exert an ideological influence on them. Where Catholics aimed to preserve an established order based on the idea of the traditional family, liberals wanted to promote the education of young girls in order to free them from the indoctrination of the Church and to prevent them from influencing their husbands on election day. The emancipation of Belgian women, including access to university and the right to vote, is therefore largely a collateral, “accidental” effect of these political clashes.

From the very beginning, the Catholic education has been fundamentally defined by its approach to gender issues or sexual preference. It stood against modernity, against science and, of course, against the emancipation of women. Sex education was described as harmful to Christian education and girls received it either from nuns or not at all. Boys and girls were thought of in fundamentally different ways and it was explicitly forbidden by the Vatican to welcome both sexes in the same establishment. While boys are destined to make a career, girls are only thought of as submissive mothers and wives. In 1929, Pope Pius XI even made a point of reminding us:

“There is not in nature itself, which fashions the two quite different in organism, in temperament, in abilities, anything to suggest that there can be or ought to be promiscuity, and much less equality, in the training of the two sexes. Therefore these differences ought to be maintained and encouraged during their years of formation”

“Sacred Heart of Jesus, bless Belgium and its King” — ​ École Sainte Marie, visit of King Albert I in1919

The legacy of dogma

Of course, things have gotten much better since. With the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the Holy See announced the Church’s entrance into modernity. Over the following decades, the Belgian Catholic school evolved from a clerical institution to a Christian-inspired school; the staff was secularized and the co-education of girls and boys gradually became the norm.

The transition came particularly late in Belgium, and was done more out of budgetary necessity than out of conviction. In 1994, there were still 20% of non-mixed Catholic schools and even today it’s not uncommon for the religion class to be given by an ecclesiastic. We are thus left to wonder whether such a heavy cultural heritage, such a tenacious religious dogma, can really be erased from our schools without leaving a trail. The answer is obviously no. In fact, the staff who replaced the clerics in schools have generally maintained a certain continuity in terms of Catholic values, heritage and tradition.

Educational science researches show there is a certain culture of emulation among teachers that conditions them to reproduce in the classroom the methodologies they themselves had been subject to when they were in school. In a Belgium that is deeply marked by Catholic education which, in the twentieth century, openly fought against the emancipation of women, we are entitled to ask ourselves about the place that gender equality issues occupy today in our schools.

2017 — Source: Cathobel.be

These accusations are not without basis. For example, several surveys have shown that our school textbooks, most of which are published by Catholic publishers, are still full of sexist stereotypes, as was already the case at the start of the 20th century (daddy goes to work, mommy does the grocery shopping and takes care of the children). At the request of our parliamentarians, these stereotypes will have to be flushed out of all textbooks. On top of that, the Louvain Catholic University is the only one to drag its feet every year over publishing its report on the state of gender equality (source redacted on request), which proves that these issues are clearly disrupting a certain established order.

Education, of which one of the missions is to enable emancipation (growing free from our roots), can only achieve this by freeing itself from religious dogma in order to be able, among other things, to deal with issues related to gender and sexual preference in a rational way rather than by relying on ancestral beliefs. Despite common sense, dogma unfortunately remains at the foundation of the Catholic school and therefore of education in Belgium.

Though we are still in desperate need of more literature and in-depth research on this subject, I believe I made my position on the matter clear. Furthermore, these ideas were shared by all the professors I got to meet at ULB when I was preparing this article.

My interview with Alexander De Croo is available in English as a podcast or in text. Photo: Nadia Aimé

A vision of division

Now that we have an overview of the causes and severity of the problem, let us look at the possible solutions.

All the experts with whom I spoke share the conviction I expressed in my previous article: it is essential to introduce programming courses in high school. Such a course would obviously not aim to turn all students into computer engineers, but to develop their computational thinking skills. When I interviewed him, Digital Agenda Minister Alexander De Croo supported the idea that an algorithmics course would have at least the same benefits as a Latin course in terms of abstraction skills.

In addition to its virtues in terms of logic and algorithmic thinking, teaching programming in school would, he said, open a new door to the computing world (for both boys and girls), as well as break down any bias that our students may have about coding.

Minister of Education Marie-Martine Schyns stated again this summer that digital literacy will play an important role in her “Pact for Excellence in Teaching”. Although everything indicates that coding is on her agenda, we will have to wait for the publication of the much-vaunted reference documents in order to get to to the bottom of it. Though the minister promises them for December, my sources tell me that it will be delayed.

In any case, these reforms will only impact secondary education from 2027 onwards. While the conservatism and inertia that are inherent to educational actors certainly do not help, it must be noted that our school system, which is very decentralized (four educational networks) and very modular (three communities, three ministries involved on the French speaking side alone), could not be more Belgian in the sense that it slows down any reform. In addition, the quasi-market dynamics that result from our network system also contribute to reinforcing the aforementioned conservatism. In comparison, programming courses have recently been introduced in France and Ireland.

In addition to programming courses, additional efforts must be made to integrate gender issues into teacher training (especially given our cultural heritage), as well as to encourage all young women that show an interest in STEM. Unfortunately, our school system is once again far too decentralized to be able to address these problems quickly. In fact, while the French-language school programs are the responsibility of the Minister of Education (Humanist), it is the Minister of Higher Education (Socialist) who is in charge of teacher training… not to mention the other two communities.

For the time being, we will have to settle for this Pact of Excellence and hope that it will live up to its ambitions… ten years from now.

Simone Giertz — “The Breakfast Machine

Conclusion — Diversity, what for?

It came out of several studies that companies employing more people from diverse backgrounds and whose managers value diversity will generally perform better than others. Indeed, a team composed of diversified profiles will be able to come up with a variety of solutions for the same problem, whereas a more homogeneous team will be much more likely to approach the issue from the same angle of attack.

Besides Belgium’s needs in terms of digitalising its economy, this is first and foremost a matter of equal opportunities. When everything seems to indicate that technology and artificial intelligence will play a central role in the world of tomorrow, the idea that this revolution should belong to men is unacceptable.

While explicit sexism isn’t as tolerated today as it was 30 years ago, implicit sexism, on the other hand, is still a thing, including in the ICT sector. As we know, it is not uncommon for our teachers to associate technical skills with boys and to overprotect female students. Given that the cultural barrier between women and science is especially noticeable in Belgium, we will have to double our efforts to put an end to it. Among other things, it will be essential to integrate gender issues into teacher training so that teachers can better deconstruct stereotypes.

Structural changes will also be necessary. The proposed changes to the core curriculum by Education Minister Marie-Martine Schyns could be a step in the right direction, since it will prevent students from turning away from science classes before they turn 15. This should have an impact on gender segregation in secondary school and in higher education. Finally, one could also put into question the place of denominational education in Belgium.

This article will thus conclude on a mixed assessment. The reforms that the education sector will soon undergo, both in the north of the country and in on the French-speaking side, will inevitably be controversial and inevitably face merciless conservatism. As a result, they will be slow and delayed. In any case, let us not give up… because even though we still have a long way to go, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel after all.

Guillaume Hachez

Many thanks to:

Constant Thiollier, Julie Foulon, Nadia Aimé, Nicolas Roland, Jean-Christophe Leloup, Nathalie, Lucie, Cheryl Miller, Marie-Claire Elhedery, Manon Brulard, Valérie Piette, Catherine Jacques, Nadine Plateau, Bruxelles Formation, le Forem, Thomas Barse, Yohann Thirapathi, Fanny Ruwet, Sébastien Brugmann

If you enjoyed reading this piece, I encourage you to share it on social medias and to further discuss it in the comments.

Thank you for your time!

Guillaume Hachez

Written by

@GuiHachez on Twitter — @QuickLyric founder & Android developer. Entrepreneur at heart.

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