Women in Engineering: Reshma Saujani Takes on Tech
Emily Pollock posted on June 20, 2019 |
Reshma Saujani presenting at the first AIA ’19 Keynote is interviewed by 99% Invisible host Roman Mars. (Image courtesy of the American Institute for Architects.)
Reshma Saujani presenting at the first AIA ’19 Keynote is interviewed by 99% Invisible host Roman Mars. (Image courtesy of the American Institute for Architects.)

In her keynote at this year’s AIA Conference, Reshma Saujani spoke about bravery—and the importance of doing things you might not be good at.

Saujani spoke from experience. She’s best known as the founder of Girls Who Code, an organization that has given almost 200,000 girls the skills and the courage to succeed in the realm of computer science. But her successful career in the tech industry was shaped by earlier political failure.

In 2010, Saujani ran as a Democratic candidate against powerful incumbent Carolyn Maloney in her New York congressional district, a race she calls “the first brave thing” she had done in her adult life. Saujani’s run at Congress was ultimately unsuccessful, but it paved the way for her foray into tech leadership.While she was campaigning for office, she visited local schools and saw a gender gap in their computing programs. “I would see dozens of boys that were clamoring to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg,” she told Vox two years ago. Yeah, I’d go visit their science classes or their computer science classes or their robotics classes and talk to teachers. And I would see, like, boys and boys and boys and boys. And I was, like, where are the girls?”

As it turned out, Saujani’s experiences weren’t just anecdotal. The percentage of female students in computer science is small, and it’s been decreasing over time—from 37 percentin 1995 to approximately 24 percent in 2017. The biggest drop-off in girls engaging in computer science happens between the ages of 13 and 17. So Saujani decided to create an intervention targeted at girls this age.

A Girl Who Code infographic showing the decline and projected decline in the percentage of computer scientists who are female. (Image courtesy of Girls Who Code.)
A Girls Who Code infographic showing the decline and projected decline in the percentage of computer scientists who are female. (Image courtesy of Girls Who Code.)

In 2012, she started Girls Who Code (GWC), an organization that teaches high school girls computing skills like programming, robotics and web design. GWC runs after school programs during the school year, a seven-week summer immersion program during the summer that puts girls inside tech companies to learn, and a two-week Campus Program. The programming isn’t just focused on girls in general; GWC makes sure that half of the girls in its programs come from families living below the poverty line, and that half of them are black or Latina. Because of this, black and Latina GWC alumni are majoring in computer science at a rate that is 16 times higher than the national average.

To Saujani, the initiative isn’t just about teaching girls computer skills. It’s also about teaching girls to be brave in a way that she believes our culture typically doesn’t teach them. On the AIA stage, Saujani recounted the kind of story she hears from GWC’s teachers: girls will call them over and ask for help with a blank screen, but clicking “undo” a few times will show that the girl actually did enter code. The problem isn’t that the student wasn’t trying; it’s that she would rather display a blank screen than show imperfect code.“It’s this idea of perfection or bust, and I wanted to figure out how to unteach that,” Saujani said.

Saujani believes that parents encourage boys to take chances and girls to avoid risks, and that the “bravery gap” between the genders is a part of why women are less represented in professions like computing. “By the time they’re adults—and whether they’re negotiating a raise or even asking someone out on a date—men are habituated to take risk after risk,” explained Saujani in her 2016 TED talk. “In other words, we’re raising our girls to be perfect and we’re raising our boys to be brave.”

Saujani’s famous TED talk focused on the ways that parents treat boys and girls differently, and how that impacts the risks they’re willing to take later in life. (Image courtesy of TED Conferences, LLC.)
Saujani’s famous TED talk focused on the ways that parents treat boys and girls differently, and how that impacts the risks they’re willing to take later in life. (Image courtesy of TED Conferences, LLC.)

But Saujani also thinks that there are factors embedded in programming culture that make it difficult for women to break into the profession. Initially, she told her AIA audience, her thought was, “I am going to teach so many girls that companies have no choice to hire them.” But more recently, she’s been frustrated by the difficulties that GWC alumni have faced in finding jobs: “I get emails from my students saying, ‘I applied to Google, I applied to Microsoft, I applied to Facebook. I’m a 4.0 MIT student, Berkeley, Stanford, you name it. Can’t get my foot through the door,” she said.

When Saujani looks at tech industry hubs like Silicon Valley, she sees “a culture that is not welcoming to women and people of color,” a culture where most of the leadership is white and male, women are routinely harassed and paid less than their male coworkers, and people of color, especially those who are black, routinely face racism in the office. Addressing her AIA audience, Saujani was blunt, asking,“Are there cultures so broken that we can’t fix them?”

Of course, Saujani isn’t a defeatist, and she’s been thinking of ways to combat these issues. Part of the solution, she believes, is for men to look out for their female coworkers and classmates. In her talk, she cited a group at the Rochester Institute of Technology called the Men in Women in Computing. The men in that group had gotten together to advocate for their female classmates, and call out sexist comments and unfair practices so that their classmates wouldn’t always have to do so. Saujani also believes that it’s important for men to make spaces for their female counterparts to advocate for themselves. “Sometimes, bravery for men means saying nothing,” she said. “Men speak 25 percent more than women in meetings. Women can’t be brave if they can’t get a word in.”

In Girls Who Code’s 2018 report, the company announced that it was“on track to achieve gender parity in entry-level computer science jobs in the United States by 2027.” But according to Saujani, there are also institutional barriers that stand in the way of this goal. (Image courtesy of Girls Who Code.)
In Girls Who Code’s 2018 report, the company announced that it was“on track to achieve gender parity in entry-level computer science jobs in the United States by 2027.” But according to Saujani, there are also institutional barriers that stand in the way of this goal. (Image courtesy of Girls Who Code.)

One of her most ambitious suggestions for combating the exclusive culture of tech is developing alternatives to major tech companies—alternatives that have respect for diversity coded into their genetics from the start. Saujani wants people to start investing in startups led by women and people of color, giving those organizations the same foot in the door as companies founded by white men. “If Facebook won't change, let’s make our own Facebook,” she said to audience cheering. “We may have to just throw our hands up and say, ‘Instead of continuing to try to change the establishment, let’s make our own establishment.’”

It’s a tall order, and Saujani doesn’t pretend otherwise. But she has faith in her GWC students—and in girls like them. In her presentation, she cited one student who decided to work on an app to cure cancer because her father was struggling with the illness, and another who went on Shark Tank with her app, which warns people when they’re sending texts or emails that could be perceived as rude. To her, there’s nothing more heartening than seeing girls excited to tackle big problems. “I believe in girls,” Saujani concluded. “They will heal us, they will save us, they will lead us.”


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