ALISON BEARD: Why do you think it has been such a hurdle to get young girls and women pursuing careers in Computer Science?
RESHMA SAUJANI: There have always been women in technology and computing, but things started to change in the 1980s. At the time, if you walked into any computer science classroom it would have been 40 per cent girls and 60 per cent boys — very close to parity. But then those numbers started trickling to where we are now, which is less than 20 per cent — and I believe it’s because of our culture.
In the 1980s we saw the birth of the ‘brogrammer’ in films like Weird Science and Revenge of the Nerds. And when you asked girls, ‘What does a computer scientist look like?’, it looked like a dude with a hoodie sitting in a basement somewhere. You can’t be what you cannot see. We created this caricature of what it looked like to be a computer scientist, and girls just didn’t see themselves in it.
I also think a lot of it has to do with the way we raise our kids. We raise girls to be perfect and we raise boys to be brave. Early on, girls start believing that they are either good at something or bad at something. For every single one of us, math is not immediately easy; it’s annoying and challenging. But if a girl gets an answer wrong, instead of saying, ‘Wait, let me try that again’, she often goes straight to ‘I’m not smart’.
Just look at Mark Zuckerberg. He was a sophomore when he dropped out of Harvard to start Facebook. He could have totally failed — but he just went for it. It’s such a white guy thing to do. It took me 33 years to figure out that brown girls can do white-guy things, too.
What are some of the specific strategies that have worked for the girls in your program — and for you in your own life?
I was that girl. I was the perfect immigrant daughter. I went to all the right schools and worked at all the right places. But then I woke up at the age of 33, miserable, and I didn’t understand why I thought if I did everything right, I would be happy.
The thing with perfectionism is that it’s not only creating a leadership gap, it is also causing a happiness gap. Women are twice as likely to be depressed as men are. So many women are unsatisfied with their lives. They’ve missed opportunities because they don’t think they’re smart enough or perfect enough or ready. As women we let many of our great ideas die on the vine. We see other people pursuing our dreams and we sit there full of regret and envy, and that creates anxiety and unhappiness.
It took me 33 years to figure out that brown girls can do white-guy things, too.
In my own life, when I ran for Congress and lost — and it didn’t break me — that was a real eye opener. I realized, Oh my goodness, I can try things and fail and actually be happier! What? So I started exercising my ‘bravery muscle’ every day.
One thing I do is, I practise imperfection. If you ever get an email from me, it probably has 10 typos and it definitely doesn’t make much sense. When I say to women, ‘Practise imperfection; send an email with a typo in it’, I literally hear a collective gasp. But think about how much time we spend writing and rewriting texts and emails, when we could be doing other things. So, go ahead: Send out an email with a typo in it!
Secondly, on a regular basis, do something that you really suck at. Not for the sake of getting better at it, but for the sake of being mediocre. For me, that thing is surfing. I can’t swim; surfboards are super heavy; and I don’t like the water. Yet I make myself go surfing on a regular basis. I barely get up on the board, but let me tell you, when I walk off the beach, I feel great: I’m standing taller and I feel like I can do anything.
The third thing is to just take one step. The truth is, I had no business starting Girls Who Code. I didn’t even know how to code myself. But I had an idea, and I was really passionate about it. So, I took one step: I went out and bought the URL.
How can we put your advice into practise at work?
Stanford’s Carol Dweck has this amazing quote: “If life were one long middle school, girls would run the world.” But it’s not. The fact is, the thing that works best in the workplace is bravery, not perfection. So, all that time you spend waiting to be the perfect leader, a bunch of guys are just passing you by, getting promotion after promotion. The first thing I would say in terms of practising imperfection is, raise your hand for the next assignment that you may not feel prepared to do. Don’t wait until you feel 100 per cent ready.
I see this happen with the women I work with all the time. I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you take on this project, or do that thing?’ And they’ll say, ‘Let me go home and think about it’. I already know what’s going to happen: They’re going to go home and figure out all the reasons why they should say No. And in the meantime, the guys are knocking down my door asking to run Human Resources, even if they know nothing about HR.
I was talking to a Mechanical Engineering teacher recently and he said, “Before I even put the assignment on the board, the guys are raising their hands, like, ‘I know the answer!’” He tells them, “You don’t even know what the question is yet!” You see this sort of thing playing out at work all the time.
Part of it is, you don’t have to get an A+ at work. There’s a big difference between excellence and perfection. I’m not telling women not to be excellent. You should be excellent, but that means enjoying the journey; it’s not all about the outcome. The point about practising doing something you suck at is, it prepares you for work, because you realize that you don’t have to be perfect to lead.
Your program has been running for some time now and has served so many young girls. What kind of outcomes are you seeing?
Our alumni are going on to major in Computer Science at 15 times the national average. The black and Latina alumni are going on to major in Computer Science at 16 times the national average. If you walk into any computer science department in the country, it is full of our alumni. So, I have no doubt that we will close the gender gap in terms of the pipeline. Now the work that needs to be done is to make sure that companies will actually hire these young women.
The other thing for me is, this goes way beyond coding. When you think about the numbers of women in STEM who will drop out, even when they declare Computer Science a major, it’s almost 50 per cent. The number of women who will leave a technology company within the first three years is also high.
How much of this should be ‘on us’ in terms of trying to be more brave and how much should be ‘on’ our educational system and employers to change the way they do business?
I believe that girls are born brave, and that it’s our culture that makes them feel like they have to be perfect. We’re up against a lot, and some of this stuff is very unintentional. I think when parents are immediately wanting to protect and coddle their girls, they think they’re building confidence. So, when Mom’s taking you out of gymnastics because you can’t do a cartwheel and you’re coming home crying every day, and she’s putting you into swimming because she wants you to feel good, she’s doing that because she loves you. I think in many ways, the way that we’ve been parenting our girls has just been wrong. Instead of putting them in a cocoon of bubble wrap, we have to teach them how to be brave and how to fail.
The onus is on us as parents, as educators, as aunts and uncles. Look, I think workplaces have to figure out how they too can reward women for imperfection and failure. I ask men all the time, What is your role in building a bravery movement? How are you going to be an ally who encourages women to be more brave and to take risks? And when you do offer a woman a promotion and she turns it down, now you know that maybe it’s not because she doesn’t want it, she just feels like she may not be ready. What is your role in lifting her up?
So much has been written about the ‘bro culture’ in tech, and we all heard about that infamous Google memo. Can a group of brave women really change that culture from the bottom up?
Yes. I see it with my girls already. They’re banding together and standing up for themselves and they’re speaking out against micro-aggressions. You see it in the Google walkout; powerful women and their male allies are saying, ‘You know what? Enough is enough’. When we think about bravery in the workplace, we tend to see it on the big stage. Whether it is women running for president, or women taking down powerful men like Harvey Weinstein.
We first have to learn everyday bravery. How do we stop silencing ourselves? Whether we get cut off in line when we’re getting a cup of coffee and we apologize; or we’re in a meeting and we don’t say what we want to say because we’re waiting to ask the perfect question; or we don’t raise our hand for an assignment because we don’t think we know exactly how to do it, so why bother to even try? It’s that everyday bravery conditioning that we have to learn in order to really take down the bro cultures.
You actually wrote a response to that Google memo. What were some of your key points?
We’ve heard it said over and over that women’s brains are wired differently. I still hear it all the time: ‘Girls just don’t want to learn how to code’. The time has come to put those arguments to an end. We have to stand up and talk about what was really at stake in that memo. The thing about Silicon Valley is, it pretends to be meritocratic. They pretend to say, ‘Everybody can participate’ — but it’s simply not true. In many ways the Valley has lost its way. If we want to be a place where ‘All nerds are welcomed’, then let’s really make all nerds welcome.
What is your biggest frustration with how tech companies are approaching diversity?
It bothers me that we continue to talk about this like it’s a pipeline problem. A few years ago, as our girls got older and started applying for technical internships in their junior and senior year, I started getting emails from them saying, ‘Reshma, I have a 4.0 at Stanford, but I applied to Company X and I didn’t even get an interview!’
I started making a list, because it became one name, two names, 50 names, 100 names. And trust me, when Reshma makes a list, it’s not good for anybody! I was like, Something’s not right here. We started surveying our girls and we found that there are real cultural problems in these companies that need to change. For one, you can’t have all-male interview panels. That is something that we can and should quickly fix. We also have to stop asking women or men or people of colour questions in interviews that make them feel ‘small’. And most of all, we have to stop hiring ourselves and think about retraining almost at the base level; not just an hour session on micro-aggressions or unconscious racism. This runs deep, and we have to treat it that way.
Look, nobody gives up power willingly, and that’s ultimately what we are talking about right now. Letting women and people of colour through the gates means giving up power.
What do you say to organizations that push back and say, ‘Well, we do have gender diversity because our entire HR department is female’, or ‘Our entire marketing department is female’. Why is it so important to have balance across the board and particularly in STEM?
Automation is changing everything about the way we live and work, and whether its artificial intelligence or data science, every day that goes by, women are being left behind. One of my students was telling me a story about Alexa and Google Home. She was saying they are being used by men to lock out their spouses in instances of domestic violence. Of course, when you have mostly male engineers building products, they’re not going to be thinking about that, are they? There are so many instances where artificial intelligence and data sensors are quite frankly biased, sexist and racist. We need to be sitting around the table—and not just in marketing. We have got to be sitting around the table in every department.
I always tell young women, “Raise your hand for the next assignment that you may not feel prepared to do”.
When you decided to start Girls Who Code, did you get any pushback along the lines of, ‘Why isn’t this for all underprivileged kids who code?’
I got more pushback like, ‘Why aren’t you starting Boys Who Code?’ Or, ‘Don’t you think girls’ brains are built a bit differently?’ My model is to have half girls that are under the poverty line and half girls that are black and Latina. So, if you walk into any The Gender Gap in Computing is Getting Worse Girls Who Code classroom, it looks like an American classroom should look. Today’s classrooms are incredibly segregated, but when you walk into ours, there are black girls, brown girls, gay girls, trans and Muslim girls, and many of them have never actually met someone who didn’t look like them. So, they’re not only learning about each other, they’re going to be building future companies together. To me, that is the future. I strongly feel that we need to be bringing girls together from all walks of life.
What is the hardest part of your job, day in and day out?
I’m really impatient about solving this problem. I also get really scared at how quickly automation is happening. I’ve been an activist on women’s issues since I was 13 years old. I’m 43 now, and when I look at the leadership numbers, it’s gotten a little better, but not as much as it needs to. As indicated, some of this stuff is
well within our control.
I silence myself all the time, and then I go home and ruminate about it. Why did I apologize for that? Why didn’t I…? This morning something happened and a bunch of us all stood up for ourselves, and I was so proud, because not every moment is that moment. Things are changing, but even in my own life, I still have a lot of work to do. I just want to be really clear about one thing: If we practise everyday bravery, things will change. I truly believe that.
My parting advice for readers is this: Don’t let our girls play it safe. Don’t let them limit themselves to the things they’re best at, or the things they think they should do. Push them to be brave. Push them to take risks. And reward them for trying.
is an American lawyer, politician, active angel investor and the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. She is the author of Brave, Not Perfect (Currency, 2019). This article has been adapted from a podcast hosted by Alison Beard. Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2019 by Harvard Business Publishing; all rights reserved. For more, visit www.HBR.org/podcasts
This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue. Published by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Rotman Management explores themes of interest to leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.
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