Since 2018, GirlTHing has been helping women and girls in BiH to build a career in IT, providing them with opportunities for development, providing education, and enabling participation in projects that increase their self-confidence and inspire them to pursue their careers in the IT sector.
We talked about the position of women in the IT industry, women's solidarity, and the activities and mission of the GirlTHing organization with Alma Šećerbegović, the initiator of the GirlTHing initiative and the president of the GirlTHing Assembly, Azra Bašić, a member of GirlTHing and the social networks team, Lejla Šarić, a member of GirlTHing- and to the responsible person of the PR team and Lejla Bašić, the president of GirlTHing.
How was GirlTHing established? How did your mission develop?
Alma: Why don't women support each other? Why don't we root for each other? - these are just some of the questions that were running through my head when I thought about how, in my long-term career as an assistant at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in Tuzla, I very often established contact with male students than with female students. Even I used to be frustrated that they could not understand certain concepts, and I believe that I hurt them with such attitudes. On the other hand, I have struggled with my demons. I always wanted to be part of a group where I would feel accepted just as I am. Growing up and in my career, I was always alone, making it even more challenging to make the already steep path to the top.
After completing my doctorate, I was invited to participate in a panel on girls' involvement in the study of electrical engineering and computer science. The faculty where I am employed had a relatively high percentage of enrolled girls compared to other regional faculties. However, after graduation, many of these girls found "easier" jobs compared to their colleagues. You rarely hear about a female student who succeeded and realized herself in her career. This intrigued me, so I started observing female students in the hallways, stopping them, and asking them what they felt they were missing. The answers I got were related to their lack of confidence in their skills and lack of working on real projects. I had the same problem as a student at the same university years ago. I remembered how much I needed support and advice then and had no one to get it from. I used to look at my male colleagues and think they were smarter and more capable than me just because they discussed topics I had no idea about.
My husband Elmir gave me the idea to start an initiative for young girls who will have support in their professional development that they lacked in traditional schooling. One phone conversation was enough for me to get out of my comfort zone, and with the help of future members - students, I organized the first initial meeting on 28.12.2018. years. There were about 80 young girls at the meeting, students of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, who wanted to learn something new.
GirlTHing started working as an initiative within the walls of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in Tuzla. In March 2019, we became a branch of the Student Council of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in Tuzla. The team unlocked the door to a more serious world, the world of projects financed by all levels of government, foundations, and foreign and domestic donors. We participated in one such project, and as one of the winning teams, we received financial support to establish an association. The young women "GirlTHing" association was officially registered on September 17, 2020. We opened the door to all young people, especially young women, who want to develop their primarily IT skills, try something new, gain self-confidence, and get an opportunity to progress.
What motivated you to work in the non-profit sector and this type of engagement?
Lejla Šarić and Azra Bašić: When you are a member of a society, a community, you always need to contribute to it in your own, unique way. You start with what you like the most, what you think you're pretty good at. When you connect the empowerment of girls and create a more favorable environment for their further education and training, the inner satisfaction that such a mission itself brings is the most valuable medal for our work. On the personal and business level, other successes in our careers only make us even happier. We operate on that drive.
How is GirlTHing funded? Which types of donors do you cooperate with, and in what way? In what ways can those who want to support your work?
Lejla Bašić: Most of the project activities of GirlTHing were realized with the financial support of domestic and international foundations and by city, cantonal, and federal bodies.
Several IT companies also provide significant support from Bosnia and Herzegovina, with whom we organize various workshops, events, and the like.
One of the ways of supporting our association is through donations, not only of a financial nature but also donations in the form of various equipment such as laptops, sensors, and tiles.
What activities are you most focused on right now? What are the most important plans and goals that you plan to realize in the future?
Lejla Bašić: Lately, we have been active in presenting young girls and women with a wide range of opportunities that the IT world offers. At first thought, most of the population sees IT as a synonym for programming. Although programming itself occupies a large part of the IT world, in addition to the opportunity to improve in this field, there are also many other opportunities that the public is not familiar with. Also, in this modern world, many branches have become multidisciplinary. So is IT, which today is connected to economics, medicine, biomedical engineering, pharmacy, graphics, and many other disciplines. We aim to animate our target group for deeper research into the IT world's possibilities because we are sure that "there is something for everyone." We try to present all these possibilities by implementing various projects combining IT with other disciplines. We also emphasize the empowerment of young women entrepreneurs, small business empowerment, and freelancing opportunities while continuously equipping young girls with the soft skills necessary to find a quality position in the labor market.
How do you involve the community in your work, and what does that bring you?
Lejla Saric: When it comes to community involvement, we always try to target projects to different target groups so that everyone can participate in the activities we organize. Through our projects, we often include children and young people, intending to adapt content for each target group that will interest them and awaken their love for IT. For elementary school students, these are most often workshops with robots; for high school students and students, they are somewhat more demanding programming languages or personal training in IT and business careers. Through our last project, we went further and included mothers and their children aged 5 to 7 who learned to program together. According to our information, we are the first association that has included mothers and children in this way through programming.
One of the principles on which your work rests is women's solidarity. How developed is it in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans, and how can we contribute to it?
Azra: We can say that women's solidarity in Bosnia and Herzegovina began to develop significantly with the development of the Internet and social networks, which gave the majority of women the space to present themselves, tell/write their story, seek help, inspire others, share their advice, experiences, and knowledge. In the end, a virtual network of support and understanding was formed, which essentially resulted in many associations that work to empower women, such as ours, by creating numerous projects with the same goal. Each new day shows progress.
From your perspective, what is women's position in IT? In what ways can we contribute to its improvement?
Alma: Although more women are working in technology than ever, statistics show that number will be only 24 percent in 2022. This underrepresentation does a disservice to women and society as a whole. Women can bring a fresh approach and offer unique perspectives to meet challenges, solve problems, and design new products. Since technology often offers high-paying opportunities, the presence of women in the industry can help reduce the overall gender pay gap.
The motivation for girls and students to become more interested in technology and work in the IT sector requires the support of family and society. Teachers should also support curiosity and critical thinking through various learning activities that allow girls to develop the ability to observe, analyze, compare information, and record. As for parents, they mustn't give in to society's stereotypes that the IT sector and technology are exclusively a man's jobs.
Do you think that GirlTHing contributes to the development of philanthropy in BiH, and in what way?
Lejla Bašić: We believe that it is important for everyone to leave their unique stamp through engagement in the community and highlight a part of the uniqueness that only they bring to the local environment and beyond. GirlTHing is the first association in BiH that was founded to improve women's position in the IT sector. Through our activities, we present a combination of traditional learning, which is always an indispensable base, with the addition of advanced contemporary methods of modern education, using all the facilities of today's technology. This formula of work has shown incredible results. We can proudly say that we are the "factory" of a group of valuable members of society who chose to think "outside the box" and which in every way strives to introduce different novelties.
What are the biggest challenges you face at work?
Lejla Bašić: From founding until today, the challenge is encouraging girls to "dare." Many of them have incredible potential, but the obstacles in their heads are pretty loud and always echo the same "I've never done that." or "I have no experience.". It is a big task to empower anyone to feel discomfort and insecurity because they are dealing with something for the first time. Still, we always try to emphasize that the feeling of inner satisfaction and fulfillment far surpasses those voices of doubt and that the results only come when we leave our comfort zone.
What are your most significant successes in your work, and what do you still want to achieve?
Lejla Bašić: The biggest success is that we managed to involve over 1000 girls in our activities in these four years of operation. Girls who participated in our workshops as high school students come to us again today as students. The girls who were once our members are today very successful in the IT companies they work for and are role models for the new generations.
We want to grow, both organizationally, territorially, and project-wise. We plan to make new partnerships, friendships, and connections. We want GirlTHing to become a recognizable brand throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina regarding IT and girls.
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