Girls who can code and break stereotypes: an interview with Natacha Sangwa

This year, the theme for the International Girls in ICT Day focuses on leadership, highlighting the need for strong female role models in STEM careers. Meet Natacha Sangwa from Rwanda who is learning to code and defying gender stereotypes.

When Natacha Sangwa wanted to learn computer coding, people in her life asked, ‘do you really think you’ll be able to handle it?’ Coding needs time and focus that they believed girls lacked. After all, men hold most of the tech jobs. 

“I was motivated to prove them wrong by learning how to code and pursuing a career in tech,” said Sangwa, who participated in the first coding camp organised under the African Girls Can Code Initiative (AGCCI) last year in Rwanda.

Natacha Sangwa participates in Rwanda's first African Girls Can Code Initiative (AGCCI) coding bootcamp in held at IPRC Tumba Polytechnic College, Rulindo District in October 2023. Photo: UN Women/Geno Ochieng

The program is spearheaded by UN Women, the International Telecommunication Union, and the African Union in 11 countries, including Rwanda. During the two-week camp, participating girls learned more about coding, robotics, and gender equality. 

“While participating in the African Girls Can Code program, I became aware of the significant gender gap that exists in the tech industry,” said Sangwa, who is most interested in robotics and cybersecurity. “I gained valuable knowledge on how to prevent online attacks and protect my online presence.” 

Equipped with these skills, Sangwa wants to help others learn how to protect themselves online. “This experience has opened my eyes to the importance of bridging the gender gap in tech and has inspired me to continue working towards creating a more inclusive and diverse tech industry,” she added. 

Sangwa is currently working on developing an app that connects local farmers directly with their clients and helps them reach a wider market.

Stereotypes holding girls back from the field of ICT 

There is a “a lack of female role models (in ICT),” said Sangwa, “and stereotypes that suggest coding is too difficult for girls.” 

“Some people believe that girls cannot be both creative and feminine, while also pursuing a career in coding. It is often assumed that coders are isolated individuals who spend all their time in dark rooms writing code and not talking to anyone else.” 

Sangwa and other participants of the program stand ready to challenge these myths and inspire more girls to learn technology and pursue careers in ICT. 

Participants during a robotics session at the first AGCCI bootcamp in Rwanda. Photo: UN Women

Increasing access to technology and representation of girls and women in ICT

“I believe that providing young girls with female role models in tech and motivating them is essential to increase representation of women in the field,” said Sangwa. “It is crucial to challenge stereotypes and show girls that they can pursue careers in tech.”

Sangwa feels that platforms like the African Girls Can Code initiative and Siemens EmpowerHer program can inspire and encourage more girls to join ICT careers.

“After attending the African Girls Can Code Initiative camp, I started with girls in my family and helped them get over their fears and become interested in tech. Now that I have completed the Siemens EmpowerHer program, I am excited to become a peer mentor and share my journey with other girls.” 

“By providing mentorship and support, we can help more girls pursue careers in tech and create a more inclusive industry for everyone.” 

Young women participants work at laptops at during an AGCCI coding bootcamp held at the GIZ Digital Transformation Center in Kigali Rwanda in April 2024. Photo: UN Women/Geno Ochieng

The gender equality bias in technology and AI

Sangwa really enjoys computer coding and believes in designing inclusive technologies that meet the needs of all individuals, and for doing that, she needs all gender perspectives: “To create technologies that work for both genders, we need to prioritise gender diversity. Since men currently dominate the tech industry, many technologies tend to reflect their interests.”

She is also interested in Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology and concerned about the gender bias in AI. “I have noticed that it is mostly developed by men and trained on datasets that are primarily based on men. This results in AI systems that sometimes fail to relate to women. For instance, when women use some AI systems to diagnose illnesses, they often receive inaccurate answers because the AI is not aware of symptoms that may present differently in women.”

A last word on the International Girls in ICT Day

“We are the future of technology, and we can achieve a lot. Do not let anyone tell you that you cannot succeed in technology because of your gender,” said Sangwa.

“Together we can break down barriers and challenge the stereotypes. We can create a world with equal opportunities and where technology is accessible to all. Let’s keep learning and pushing the boundaries of what is possible.”

Originally published on UN Women