September Meeting Summary | Back to School: Engaging Women and Girls in Tech

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Elaine Cheng moderates the panel discussion.

Our September meeting featured a panel discussion on the importance of engaging women of all ages—particularly middle-school-age girls—in STEM subjects and careers. It was moderated by our Board Sponsorship Chair, Elaine Cheng.

First, let’s meet our six panelists:

Trisha Hajela is a fourth-year undergraduate engineering student at the University of Virginia pursuing a major in Computer Science and double minors in Engineering Business and Economics. Trisha is active around grounds with her involvement with Fourth Year Trustees, AOE, and the Society of Women Engineers. Trisha is passionate about encouraging young women to pursue STEM fields, through organizing Ladies in the Lab with Grace (see below). In her spare time (what is spare time?) she enjoys reading, catching up with friends, and Netflix.

Christine Lenardson is a 4th year mechanical engineering student at the University of Virginia. She is currently the president of Girls Excited about Math and Science (GEMS) where she works to increase interest in STEM fields for young women. With GEMS, she performs and encourages the participation in math and science experiments at local middle and elementary schools.

Ann Lewis is the CTO of MoveOn.org and a chapter leader of Girl Develop It Central VA. Ann spends her days building new apps and websites that make the world a better place, and organizing classes and networking events for women who are interested in learning more about careers in technology.

Kim Wilkens is the founder of Tech-Girls, co-conspirator with Paula White on Girls’ Geek Days, founding board member of Charlottesville Women in Tech and by day she works to integrate computer science into the curriculum at STAB. Her mission in life is to seek gender equity in tech in Charlottesville and beyond.

Grace Wusk is a fourth year at UVA majoring in biomedical engineering and minoring in engineering business. At school she is very active serving as Vice President in both her sorority, AOE, a social and professional sorority for engineers, and the Biomedical Engineering Society. She has interned at NASA Langley Research Center for the past four summers and loves talking to people about NASA. Last spring, Grace and AOE sister, Trisha Hajela, organized Ladies in the Lab, an interactive showcase of women in STEM to get middle and high school girls excited about pursuing futures in STEM.

The discussion touched on a broad array of topics, from personal experiences as a woman studying and/or working in STEM, to strategies for getting (and keeping) girls (and women) interested in tech careers. Here are some highlights.

Getting involved in combating the gender imbalance

Why and at what point in your own tech career did you get involved in your organization?

Kim Wilkens, who graduated with a Computer Science degree in 1987, realized as her career progressed that the number of women graduating in CS was actually declining—precipitously. Unable to get this alarming trend off her mind, she decided that she would do something about it. After a tweet announcing her intention to found an organization to foster and sustain girls’ interest in tech received positive responses and offers of support, Tech-Girls was born.

Ann Lewis, who graduated with her CS degree in 2003, couldn’t believe an article she read in 2013 about the precipitous decline of women pursuing degrees and careers in tech. “Are you kidding me? It’s a wonderful career—it offers so much flexibility, and there is so much need for engineers!” It was at that point that Ann decided to get involved, and, after looking into various organizations, decided to found a local chapter of Girl Develop It

How do you see gender stereotypes and bias impacting the field?

Kim, who researched the issue of gender bias in her masters (in education), raised the issue of unconscious versus conscious bias. In the 1980s, she recounted, bias against women in the tech workplace was more in-your-face. Now it is more subtle—both for those who express it and for those who experience it—and that makes it harder to deal with.

Take for example the drop-off in girls’ interest in STEM; the fact that it becomes more difficult to recruit girls for tech projects around sixth grade is due to peer pressure among girls themselves, pressure that says ‘tech isn’t cool’. To combat that, you need to work harder to engage them.

Trisha shared similar observations and stressed the need for greater encouragement of women in the field. As a mentor with Girls Who Code, she would often hear from her mentee that she was the only girl among her friends who was into tech. She also watched her younger sister’s cohort of girls, all smart and good at math, get steered in other directions.

Grace shared how a supportive environment can make all the difference, once she found at NASA, working with an all male team.  While her teammates would tease her about a women’s lunch group (the typical “why don’t we have one of those?”), the existence of the group is what matters, and the reason for it can be, if needed, explained. “It’s well known that bio-medical engineering is the most gender balanced of engineering majors—it’s basically 50-50. But I’ve never had a female professor. There’s a clear disconnect there, right?”

Christine, speaking from the opposite side of the gender-balance spectrum, mechanical engineering, emphasized that while support was important, it was essential that professors and teaching assistants refrain from patronizing women with unsolicited offers of extra assistance—just like the male students, they need to learn to manage for themselves without special attention.

Ann discussed how in many workplace environments, men want to understand the role they play in creating an environment that is biased against women; they will be receptive if you are willing to engage. There is, naturally, a pressure and discomfort that can come from being “the only whatever you are in the room,” but she has found that it is surprisingly easy to change these environments for the better. “Stick it out, get more engaged.”

Paying it forward

What kind of advice would give a mother of a 7-year-old daughter?

Ann, with the disclaimer that she is not actually a parent, talked about the importance of cues. Seven is the age of cue recognition, of beginning to decide for oneself which environments are going to be safe. And if that young girl doesn’t recognize anyone like her in that environment, she’s probably not going to feel safe. And so no wonder she’s not going to be drawn toward it!

Kim shared her anecdotal observations about a double-standard she’s observed between the way girls and boys are raised. While boys are allowed to pursue one interest single-mindedly, even obsessively, girls are encouraged to be well-rounded, a tendency that may end up steering women away from a deep interest in tech.

This observation sparked a memory for Ann, who entered Carnegie Mellon the year that the famous “dave-to-girls” ratio in the entering CS class was finally in favor of women (that is, there were finally more women in the class than men named Dave). “That pressure to be well-rounded really explains why Carnegie Mellon was only getting the basement nerds [as college applicants]. Women feel more pressure to do social good”—meaning they aren’t given the same permission to pursue a passion simply because they enjoy it, without regard to whether it will benefit others. “You’re welcome, world,” Ann said, with a wry chuckle.

Turning back to the dave-to-girl ratio, when Carnegie Mellon’s CS department changed their admission policies to admit not just the best (i.e., most obsessively) prepared students in favor of well-rounded ones, they did so not specifically to address gender imbalance, but because they discovered it was better for overall graduation rates.

What’s going to make the difference in getting more women in the field?

Christine: “Role models. Having one in your life will change things for women. 6th, 7th, 8th grade women need to see someone they think is cool doing science, and then they want to emulate it.”

Trisha: “Showing women that the culture of Computer Science is not just nerds in their windowless basements.”

Grace. “Definitely role models. But also showing girls how it’s going to work once they are in the field, i.e., addressing the two-body problem and work-life balance.”

Kim: “There isn’t one answer—it’s all of the above. That’s why I took the job at STAB—I want to integrate tech into the curriculum so girls no longer have to self-select. The change has to come from the top—national projects, programs, rock star people endorsements—as well as grassroots level activism.”

This discussion filled us with energy and enthusiasm for our shared commitment to women and girls to encourage tech interests and careers. We also learned about the many ways we can help engage more women and girls in tech in our community. Check out the Outreach Opportunities page for more information.

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Charlottesville Women in Tech