Looking For The Elephant In The Valley

Female role models doing exceptional things in tech have always existed. Hopefully future generations will believe that STEM is gender neutral.

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As a new arrival in the Silicon Valley and a woman, my head is full of statistics and charts. Not the kind that data scientists use to power their decision-making, but the kind that has made its way into the public discourse more and more in the last few years—diversity numbers in the tech industry.

Armed with this data, I set out to talk to my company’s female CEO, Sundari Mitra, as well as female engineers whom I see every day at work. I wanted to understand how their experiences tied in with all the research emerging on the subject.

While several interesting conversations resulted, one thread that stuck with me was the impact of various types of cultural messaging and the crucial need for role models. With my very small sample size of five women, three had family members who were engineers or working in STEM. Each cited this an important factor when it was time to make a choice about what to study at college. They saw the challenging work their fathers, brothers, and in one case mother, did, and decided this what they wanted to do as well.

At the time, be it the 80s, 90s, or even 2000s, in the U.S. or India, this choice led them into male-dominated university classrooms, and thereafter, an even more XY chromosome filled zone: the tech industry. All of them have survived and thrived, though not without some battle scars.

Dawn Maxon, a principal engineer at NetSpeed recalled how a professor at her undergraduate school refused to even acknowledge the presence of female students in his class or during his office hours. He simply didn’t believe that women could be engineers. “It affected me for a long time afterward. I cannot believe that the university allowed it to continue.” The idea that women are somehow inherently less gifted at STEM work than men is deeply entrenched.

This circles back to the messaging that bombards children from an early age, and the ideas that stick with them as a result of early experiences. For example, UCLA researcher Jane Margolis found that in the 1990s many parents bought computers, which were then new and exciting devices, and installed them in their sons’ rooms, but not their daughters’.

That particular expression of bias has likely largely run its course, but bias itself still lurks. “At each new assignment, there’s a period where I have to prove that I do know something, and am capable. During this time I let my work speak for itself. I don’t think a man would have a similar experience,” said Kiran Bachchu, a senior staff engineer at NetSpeed.

“People are nicer to you if you’re a woman. But on the flipside of that, they also underestimate you. Liking you does not mean respecting you,” said JJ Tuan, NetSpeed’s chief verification architect.

This self-sufficiency at work, as well as the financial and broader independence, is perhaps the most powerful form of messaging possible. It allows younger generations to see that women and men are equally technically gifted and capable of carving out niches for themselves in the world of tech.

The diversity profiles released by tech giants in 2017 show that that gap is still stark, with women constituting anywhere between 17% and 50% of the total employee numbers. Still, each woman who works in the industry serves as a role model for her family and the ecosystem as a whole. “Having more women in the field makes it a little easier for the women who come after, as it isn’t an entirely new path,” said Swathi Dasoju, a design verification engineer at NetSpeed.

Maxon agreed that bringing more women into the fold is the best way to bring about change. “There are a lot of good people out there. Have the courage to reach out to a mentor.” Looking back, she said she would do some things differently, though. “There are some times I really wish I had spoken out and I didn’t. I didn’t because I was afraid or embarrassed or some combination of that. I would wish that a young person would find someone that she could talk to, [like] a mentor.”

Mitra is a strong proponent of women voicing their opinions and attending women’s events. “That is where we hear that some of the things that we’re going through are common industry problems,” she said.

As someone who has observed the changes over the past couple of decades, Mitra is of the opinion that things have been getting better. The increased flexibility with work hours and remote assignments have been a significant change on this front. A leader in a hiring position, she herself has tried her best to attract more talented women, and create a conducive work environment. Maxon’s observation that this was the highest number of women she’d ever worked with, shows that Mitra is succeeding.

Mitra also emphasized the importance of the messaging that comes from the women themselves. “I always tell my women employees, ‘Take a moment or two to talk about the good work that you’re doing and get the accolades you deserve.’”

From Ada Lovelace to Sheryl Sandberg, female role models doing exceptional things in tech have always existed. This inspiration, coupled with positive influences at home and on the job will hopefully produce generations who truly believe that STEM is gender neutral and has a space for everyone.



4 comments

Sally Slemons says:

Well said

Ashky says:

Love this article, very well articulated Kavya.

Eric says:

Can we please stop obsessing about women in STEM. Women are not as prevalent in STEM because they do not choose to be. I do not see what the problem is…? If women choose to be in STEM they will be, if they do not they won’t. No one is keeping them out and no one is making it difficult.

colin hendry says:

Here’s a suggestion Eric, why not read the article first and post a reply afterwards? Old school, I know…

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