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Next-gen women engineers forge a new path in tech

At the Grace Hopper Celebration of women in tech, young female computer science majors abound. They say they're ready to fight for a place in the field.

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Attendees gather for keynote sessions. 

AnitaB.org

Why is this still happening?

That was the subject of a rant delivered by Hasini Sundaresan, a junior computer science major at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Sundaresan spent the summer interning at Juniper Networks in Sunnyvale, California. The day news broke that a Google employee had written a 10-page document trashing diversity efforts and suggesting women are biologically unsuited to work in the industry, she was at Juniper, virtually across the street from Google's Sunnyvale campus, trying to make sense of it all.

The summer had been great so far. She described Juniper as being "full-on for diversity."

And yet, in a metaphorical sense, she couldn't help thinking about how someone across the street thought she didn't belong in computer science.

"It was hard to see that so close to where I was," she said. "In a place where everything is so futuristic, there's still this backward mentality."

Sundaresan wasn't alone in wrestling with this issue. She was one of the 18,000 attendees at this year's Grace Hopper Celebration. It's an annual conference put on by AnitaB.org, an organization aimed at the advancement of women in computing. 

You can imagine that the Google employee's document was a popular topic of conversation. There were more than a few subtle and not so subtle references to it in various keynote presentations, and it underpins why so many women flock to this conference every year, boosting attendance records higher and higher. Prejudice is, in fact, still happening.

Over three days at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, women at all career stages gather to listen to speakers, attend sessions, network, look for jobs, or just be reminded that even if they're the only woman on their team at work, they're definitely not the only woman in the industry.

"I've seen [students] being spooked by the challenges ahead," said Brenda Darden Wilkerson, who just this October took the reins as president and CEO of AnitaB.org. She wants to make it known: "We understand what you're experiencing, and you're not alone."

For students, this is a particularly important message. Back in the 1980s, women accounted for about 37 percent of graduating computer science majors. For myriad reasons, including the marketing of early personal computers to boys and the rise of the typically male, supergenius geek in popular culture, that percentage has fallen to around 18 percent.

That's troubling for a variety of reasons, including the fact that tech positions are among the country's highest paying jobs. A 2016 report from IT consulting firm Accenture found that by missing out on tech gigs, women could be missing out on nearly $299 billion in economic opportunity by 2025. Accenture also projected that women's share of tech jobs will only shrink.

This year I spent a good chunk of my time at Grace Hopper, held Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, walking around the career fair, a sprawling event dotted with corporate whimsy. Companies handed out swag and set up igloos, tiki huts and brightly colored signs to draw job seekers toward recruiters. I talked with students about what it's like to be studying to enter the tech field.

They know the deal. They've read the articles. They know they could end up sitting near the writer of the next anti-diversity document. They also know that letting it get them down isn't going to help them succeed. Many are finding the support they need at their schools. Others, not so much. And some are already thinking about how they can help the women who will enter the field after them.

Same old problems

Allison Mutka grew up hearing about computer science. Both her parents are in the industry. She also heard from her mother, though, that women have been underrepresented in the field for a long time.

"She would always tell me that when she was going through school, she was one of the only females," the Michigan State University sophomore said, standing near the career fair entrance. "She'd get put down."

Though Mutka discovered she genuinely liked computer science, she was also motivated to get into the field by her desire to help close the gender gap. She and her classmates were at Grace Hopper to attend sessions and scope out companies.

Some things have changed since Mutka's mother was in school, but women students still say they're woefully in the minority in their classes.

IaOng Moua, a senior at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who chose computer science as a second bachelor's degree, said she feels lucky if she's enrolled in a class with one other girl.

"In class when I need help and I look around and I'm like, 'OK, those are all guys, the professor is a guy,' I have to step it up and just ask," she said, expressing a common feeling of isolation.

For Karen Taub, a Georgia Tech junior from Venezuela, she's not just dealing with being one of the only women in her classes, she's also one of the only Hispanics. That adds another layer of complexity when doing something like trying to find a mentor who shares your background. In the wider industry, we're not even totally sure how many women of color work at the tech giants, because they usually don't specifically report it.

A report from CNET sister site TechRepublic found that while many universities are doing a better job of attracting women to introductory computer science courses, their graduation rates remain low. There are plenty of off-ramps for women as they progress in their studies, such as lack of mentorship and support, and all the trials and tribulations that come with being a minority.

Those are problems that just don't seem to die.

Ready for a fight

Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, is trying to break those patterns in computer science education. Under President Maria Klawe, more than half the school's computer science majors are women.

"That's more or less what we expect from our graduates, that one, you're going to be very thoughtful about the places you pick, and two, you're going to fight if you see things you think aren't right and you're going to speak up," Klawe said over the phone a week before the conference.  

Being a minority in tech isn't easy.

During her opening keynote address, Melinda Gates, philanthropist and co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, talked about the double-edged sword of high-profile diversity scandals.

After all, in 2017 we've seen major shakeups in the venture capital world as women stepped forward to call out VCs like Chris Sacca and Dave McClure for sexual harassment. Susan Fowler's account of her time at Uber has shed a light on Silicon Valley's often-talked about bro culture.

Hearing all that is tough. But, Gates said, it's not necessarily a bad thing.

"In some ways, the bad news is actually good news," she said. "We're finally seeing consequences for bad behavior."

Most of the students I spoke with have some sense that staying in and succeeding in tech will likely take some extra gumption, and a certain mindset going in.

Whenever Michigan State sophomore Sarah Johanknecht speaks with a company, she makes a point of asking about its diversity efforts.

"I want to be respected and appreciated wherever I work," she said.

Candice Biamby, an information systems major at the University of Georgia, reminds herself of how she might be falling into certain habits. She said she'd read that if a man sees a job listing and has perhaps two of five requirements, he'll still apply for the job. Women are more likely to discount themselves and not apply if they don't meet every single requirement.  

"I'm just going to go for it," Biamby said. "I'm going to try my best. If they like me, they'll interview me. If they don't, you have nothing to lose."

Seeing scandals ripple through tech makes Eseosa Asiruwa, a senior at Hamilton College, feel determined.

"It makes me feel more resilient and [I want to] prove the naysayers wrong," she said.

Banding together

"We've achieved a lot," former US Chief Technical Officer Megan Smith said Wednesday morning, looking into the audience. "And yet this year has been really striking in the places people have been falling down."

The specter of prejudice in the tech industry frequently haunts the corners of an event like Grace Hopper, but attendees refuse to let it overwhelm them.

While these young women haven't even fully launched themselves into the industry, they're already thinking about what they can do to help those who will come after them.

Mutka and Johanknecht, friends from Michigan State, are involved with a campus club for women in computing, where they do outreach at local schools, getting kids exposed to computer science at as young an age as possible. Through a Google-funded program called igniteCS, they volunteer at high schools, teaching basic programming languages. They're also helping to start a chapter of Girls Who Code, an organization with the mission of getting girls into tech.

"I think that's probably the biggest thing that we can do to improve the ratio at all these companies: just get more women into computer science," Mutka said.

As for Sundaresan, the UT Dallas student who felt so frustrated by that now ex-Googler's memo, she's also volunteering at underprivileged schools, and she's active in a group called Women Who Compute, which also organizes outreach opportunities and brings speakers to campus.

Ultimately, she's optimistic, particularly about members of her generation and how they'll treat each other in the years to come. She loves computer science and she's not abandoning ship.

"The world is changing," she said, "and it's time we all get on board with that fact."

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