Text: Ede Schank Tamkivi

It’s a well-known fact around the world that women and girls are far less likely than their male peers to pick a career in IT. The stereotypes start early in our childhoods. An Estonian initiative called the Unicorn Squad is tackling this issue by offering hands-on activities for girls to get more acquainted with robotics and tech and bust the myth that technology classes are for boys only. In fact, boys will not be allowed in at all.

In a dark corridor inside a former factory building in central Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). , a group of pre-teen girls is running around in led-light encrusted costumes, giggling in excitement as they form enlightened creatures in the dark corridor. It took them an hour to solder the led-strips together, attach a battery, and glue the whole system on their dark clothes.

This was one of the many classes spread all across Estonia where girls in the age range of 8-12 would meet once a week to take on challenging problem-solving in the context of real-life phenomena such as electricity, magnetism, sound, and speed. In some of the most exciting classes the girls built their own speakers out of cardboard and magnets, carved musical instruments out of carrots, flew drones through assigned tackle courses, and chased two-wheeler robots they built themselves. All the necessary materials for a class fit in a regular plastic box and each class would be conducted with the help of 2-3 volunteers, most likely parents of the girls, but also teachers or just active members of local communities.

“The girls and the emotions were up in the sky,” exclaims Urve, a group mentor from Kuressaare Town in the westernmost island in Estonia, Saareemaa Island (pop.13,000). , after a class where the girls could test how a compound lever mechanism works by hoisting each other up in an empty canister tied to a rope. “The fantasy of the girls really starts running wild once they realise what they can do,” adds another teacher from Elva, a small town in Southern Estonia. The mentors, most of whom have no background in tech, are all there from pure enthusiasm and willingness to learn on the go. The learning goes both ways: the grownups assist the kids with using the tools and safety rules while the girls tend to be much more acquainted with using apps on mobile devices and finding tutorials online.

Frustration leads to new solutions

“A few years ago, my then 10-year-old daughter was kicked out of her robotics class because the school had to cut down on the capacity of the after-school activities and had to get rid of the ‘less active’ students, which included both of the girls in the club. This made me wonder why tech-classes are so gender-biased and what makes the girls less active in the classroom,” says Taavi Kotka, an entrepreneur and the former CIO of Estonia, who is the mastermind and the key force behind the movement. His frustration with the system led him to come up with a girls-only technology club: “We decided that the content would have to be based on gamification elements that would be attractive and available to anyone who’s interested.”

That is, anyone, besides the boys. Because the presence of boys tends to ‘shut down’ the girls since the boys are expected to be – and quite often are because of the very same expectations – much smarter when it comes to using technology. When there are no boys around to tell them how they do it all wrong, the girls feel much safer in opening up to learning new skills.

HK Unicorn Squad (the abbreviation refers to Taavi’s daughter Helena Kotka) started off in their own basement with 17 local girls who would meet once a week to solve practical problems Taavi, his wife Kerstin Kotka and their neighbour Liis Koser, would come up with. Now, Liis has become the executive of the movement that has 1000 members and 150 mentors in 80 clubs across Estonia. 

From the very beginning, Taavi and Liis would prepare the classes with tutorial videos and boxes filled with all the necessary materials, which were rotated from one class to another. The logistics are obviously quite a headache but there have only been a few instances when the box did not reach the remotest corners of Estonia in time (due to postal service errors), with active groups in places like Kihelkonna, Põlva Town in the SE of Estonia(pop. 5,500). , and Kolga.

“Our goal is to reach an audience of at least 3000 girls, every tenth girl in that age group in Estonia,” Taavi explains. “That equals the number of boys going through after-school robotics classes in a year so far.” He refers to programs like the international First Lego League program, which usually attracts around an 80/20 ratio of boys/girls, which, according to the organisers of the FLL movement in Estonia has already ‘changed a lot’ from 90/10 in the past decade, but it’s still mostly boys going for the robot challenge and girls preparing the presentation portion.

Taavi claims they are especially happy that most of the Unicorn Squad clubs are located outside of Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). and other bigger townships, therefore catering for the apparent hunger of age-appropriate and immersive tech activities for girls. It’s not unlikely that the Unicorn Squad curriculum could soon replace the outdated arts and crafts classes in schools where, in many cases, the boys and girls are still segregated into two groups: while the boys learn how to operate modern technology like the 3D printers and CNC-machines, the girls still do embroidery, sew pillowcases and cook… and the boys get to eat what the girls cooked.

From one to eighty clubs within two years

The initiative, going from just one club to more than 80 in less than 2 years, has already been noticed and applauded by other players in the field as a necessary means to change the stereotypes. So far, Taavi Kotka funded the whole movement by himself, but as of this spring, the Good Deed Education Fund, set up by entrepreneurs (from IT backgrounds mostly) have decided to pitch in and support the further development of the Unicorn Squad with 100 000 euros. 

“What the Unicorn Squad does is to teach girls the necessary skills for the 21st  century – how to take initiative, solve critical problems and do it with different STEAM tools,” says Pirkko Valge from the Good Deed Education Fund. “We hope to see that their lessons will be integrated into the school curriculum and every girl and boy will have the Unicorn Squad experience in their lifetime.”

The need to solve a problem does not come from personal experience and frustration only. Based on most recent statistics, the otherwise booming ICT sector is still heavily male-biased with three men per one female dominating the industry. Although some IT companies boast 38% female ratios, and women are obtaining executive roles more often instead of customer support positions only, the overall picture still looks rather grim. 

A study that was commissioned by TransferWise from researchers at the Institute of Educational Sciences and the Institute of Computer Science of the University of Tartu University of Tartu - Tartu Ülikool is an Estonian higher education institute. , conducted among 740 9 th and 12 th graders in Estonia concluded that only 21% of girls – as compared to 53% of boys in the same age group – would see their future in the field of ICT. The reasons for not being interested, they pointed out in the survey, span from boring programming classes to not having any positive female role models.

Although Kotka is adamant that the Unicorn Squad classes remain exclusive for girls only, in Vivistop Telliskivi the mentors experimented with a mixed group next to the girls-only club. “It’s probably too early to make any conclusions yet but based on our observations, boys enjoyed the classes just as much as the girls, and since our kids are used to working in mixed-gender teams, we really did not see any difference in the results,” claims Mari-Liis Lind, the cofounder and CEO of Vivita, who has been one of the mentors of the girls-only club for more than a year now. “But it depends on far too many aspects like the drive of the mentors, the individuals in the group, etc.”

Yet, the feedback that Liis Koser has collected from the mentors over the past year points to high levels of satisfaction: “Based on the data we already have, we can say that girls only groups really work. Our lessons are looked forward to and we don’t see any decline in the girls’ motivation. We basically don’t have absences – girls miss the class for health reasons only.”

One course covers ten classes and usually runs from September to December and/or March to May. All the groups that started the first course have continued to the second, i.e. there has been a 100% continuation rate on groups who have moved from the second course to the third course as well. “Only 4-5% of all girls quit after the first or second course and usually not because they have lost interest or they didn’t like it, but because they have moved away or some other after-school activities like piano or ballet lessons don’t allow them to continue,” Liis concludes. “Once the parents have seen that the technology classes are here to stay, it will hopefully be easier for them to decide to choose the clubs for their daughters and we will earn an equal standing among the more traditional after school activities.”

The article was published first in Life in Estonia.

Edited for web by eesti.life.