Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Stitching up racism: how knitting is helping break down barriers in South African tech

Knit2Code, a pioneering South African programme rooted in the similarities between knitting and coding

Knit2Code, a pioneering South African programme rooted in the similarities between knitting and coding Image: Lindiwe Matlali

Lindiwe Matlali
Chief Executive Officer, Africa Teen Geeks
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Systemic Racism

This article is part of: The Davos Agenda

• Despite making key contributions in the technology sector, Black people continue to face barriers to entry.

• Knit2code is a pioneering South African scheme that aims to widen access to careers in STEM professions.

• Tech needs to reach talent, wherever it's from, at an early age.

It is commonly pointed out that the tech industry has a diversity problem. One of the main reasons given for the lack of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is the lack of female role models. According to the McKinsey report Women in the Workplace, only 36% of tech employees are women and only 20% are in senior positions. The stats are worse when you look at women of colour, of whom only 17% enter tech every year, while only 3% are in senior positions.

Unfortunately, there is a perception that hiring people of colour means lowering the standard. This couldn't be further from the truth. Black women have made tremendous contributions in STEM, from Nasa mathematician Katherine Johnson, to the woman whose innovations made it possible for businesses to thrive through the pandemic, Marian Croak. She developed Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), making it possible for companies such as Zoom and Skype to exist. Croak is currently the Vice-President of engineering at Google, with over 200 patents to her name.

These women are a perfect example that talent is distributed equally. Unfortunately, opportunity is not. One would think trailblazing black women like her would make it easier for the next generation of black women to be treated fairly; however, we are still fighting the same battles she did. In fact, a study published by the UK's Intellectual Property Office found that seven of the top 10 countries with the highest proportion of female innovators are in Africa; proving that women of colour do not need favour or charity. Given an equal opportunity, they will deliver.

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This barrier to success spans many industries, including sport. Serena Williams is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. She started playing tennis at age four and has worked hard to become one of the greatest players of all time. Imagine if she had not picked up a tennis racket until she was 15. It’s possible that she wouldn’t have reached the top. When a child starts a sport at such a young age, they build incredible muscle memory and if they stick with it, they can achieve greatness. But racism, and the lack of access to opportunities that follows from it, keeps many talented children from following Williams’s path.

There is a push to have more women in STEM. But we cannot wait until they are 15 years old to give them opportunities in these fields. Just like Serena Williams, the sooner we put that STEM racket in their hands, the more likely they are to stick with it and reach the top. There is an urgent need to increase the pipeline of girls in the field, which will pay off in the future. To have more women in STEM in 10 years, we need more girls in STEM today.

In 2013, South Africa published the ministerial guidelines to improve equity in the distribution of bursaries and fellowships funded by the department of science and innovation. According to them, priority should be given to people of colour and women. While the intentions were good, challenges remain regarding execution and at what age such support is actually available: from third-year students aged 21, up to postdoctoral fellows. But that is too late, because there is no financial support that ensures that the system secures students at the crucial early stages when passions are built. There has been systematic and institutional exclusion of people of colour and women in particular from STEM for years in South Africa; it is extremely challenging to find students competitive enough to secure the existing bursaries. In the end, they are usually given to white men with the justification that there are no women to take them up.

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The code of knitting

How do we solve this problem? How do we change this perception – that girls cannot succeed in STEM careers?

Knitting is one way. This is why, in 2015, I worked with an amazing team of women to create Knit2code, a free programme that teaches the Python language through knitting.

The similarities between a knitting pattern and a computer program are stunning. Knitting uses the same types of loops, conditions, and concepts of functions as a computer language. “Knits” and “purls” are essentially the 0s and 1s of computer programming, and when used in infinite combinations, can create as much variation as any code.

Learning to knit, then, is a natural stepping stone to learning to code, with the same logical thinking required. It also reinforces connections between generations of women, encouraging them to see themselves not only as domestic agents but also as agents of change. It's about bringing multiple generations together and showing how an ancient skill can be used to teach a 21st century skill.

For me, Knit2Code was a necessary innovation. I have been working hard to influence our government to include computer science in the curriculum and have succeeded. But, with only 10% of South African schools having computer labs, 90% of our children – and not just girls – are still left out. Due to our apartheid legacy, we still have huge levels of inequality and inadequate schooling infrastructure. This makes it difficult to prioritize building computer labs when some of our kids are still learning under trees.

By thinking differently about coding and creating simulators for coding, we remove the biggest barrier the majority of poor communities have to learn how to code: the computer. Children can learn to code without even touching one. Imagine what this means for 90% of people in Africa who do not have access to computers or the internet? (In fact, worldwide, only 38% of people own a computer.)

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If you do not intentionally include, you unintentionally exclude. The great reset will not be a great reset if it's a recovery of the same. The great reset must and should be a reset of the economy that works and treats everybody with drive, commitment and talent – whichever race or class they belong to – the same.

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