Reshma Saujani first saw the gender gap in computer science while visiting classrooms on the campaign trail in 2010 as the first female Indian-American candidate for Congress.
“I had seen dozens of boys clamoring to be the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerburg and I thought to myself ‘Where are the girls?’ and this question, quite frankly, became quite an obsession because it just didn’t make sense,” Saujani said.
Women make up nearly half of America’s workforce, yet remain underwhelmingly represented in fields such as electrical engineering and computer coding, said Saujani, who spoke Sunday as part of the Purdue University Northwest Sinai Forum series. Unable to unseat an incumbent that year for Congress, Saujani said her life took vastly different turn two years later, in 2012, when she founded Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology fields. To a packed room, Saujani admitted that she, herself, doesn’t know how to code. But she is on this stage because, as a daughter of Ugandan refugee parents who lives were “literally saved by this country,” she is deeply passionate about providing opportunities to young woman, especially those less fortunate. Just 10,000 girls graduated with computer science degrees in 2017, and only a fraction of that consisted of black or Latina women, Saujani said. Saujani said we live in a society where girls are taught from a young age to be perfect, rather than risk-takers willing to fail, and that math and science is not for them.
“For those of you who are coders in the room, you know that coding, it’s an integral process,” she said. “It’s frustrating. It’s imperfect. It is an act of failure and it turns out that when you teach girls to code, you actually them how to be brave.”
Six years in, Girls Who Code has reached nearly 90,000 girls of all backgrounds through after-school programs, summer immersion sessions, school clubs and shorter two-week sessions to expose middle and high school girls to computer coding. Her initiative of achieving gender parity in computer science by 2027 is not without its challenges, she said. Computer science courses are not mandatory in states like Indiana, but should be, Saujani said, while one-third of classrooms across the U.S. still do not have internet access. During a question-and-answer session, Purdue senior Melissa Fitzgerald pointed out the gender discrimination experienced as she seeks internships in computer technology, including at a big tech company in Chicago. The 23-year-old from Chesterton asked Saujani how girls can combat gender discrimination while hunting for jobs. Saujani answered by saying many “Girls Who Code” alumna surveyed about times they were passed over for internships and jobs, in favor of men, have unfortunate similar stories of rejection. “No one gives up power and nobody certainly gives up power easily,” she said, adding that male-led big tech companies have to realize they are part of the problem and that they must change hiring practices. After the Sinai Forum, Fitzgerald said Saujani’s words inspired her. Opportunities like “Girls Who Code” didn’t exist for her when she was in middle and high school, she said. Fitzgerald said she didn’t stay silent about the tech company’s discriminatory practices and emailed them — not to be reconsidered for the internship, but to withdraw her application to make them aware of their discriminatory hiring practices in hopes women of future generations do not have the same experience. “I had to say something because I imagine as they hire on new interns, there will be other girls applying for this same position one day,” she said. Saujani said as natural healers and caregivers, women need to be pioneers in the computer science field, become role models for the generations ahead and inspire politicians and policy. One “Girls Who Code” alumna designed an application called ReThink, to protect children and teens from cyberbullying, she said. Another student said obtained a patent, at age 17, for technology to combat gun violence.
“We need that type of leadership. Especially in a time when our leaders are acting like children and our children are acting like leaders,” she said.
She asked parents and teachers in the room to encourage young women into coding and other tech fields. “The last jobs left will be humans telling computers what to do,” she said. Saujani is a graduate of the University of Illinois, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Yale Law School. She is also the author of two books, “Girls Who Code: Learn to Code” and “Change the World,” the first in a 13-book series about girls and coding, and “Women Who Don’t Wait In Line,” in which she advocates for a new model of female leadership focused on embracing risk and failure, promoting mentorship and sponsorship, and boldly charting your own course — personally and professionally, according to Purdue. Upcoming forums: The Sinai forum will welcome Washington Post national political reporter Robert Costa on Nov. 11 presentation titled “Inside 2018: Understanding the Midterm Elections.” Costas covers White House, Congress and election campaigns. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and holds a master’s degree in politics from the University of Cambridge, Cost is also a political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC. For its fifth and final speaker, the Sinai Forum will host Lou Holtz, a former Notre Dame football coach, on Dec. 2. Holtz is one of the most successfully football coaches of all-time and is now considered among the greatest speaking legends in the U.S. today, according to Purdue.
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