Grace Hopper Celebration, Bring Universities Into The Conversation

This is my first time at Grace Hopper, the largest gathering of women in technology aimed at celebrating our contributions to the field and brainstorming how far we have to go. I came in suspicious at best — would hanging out with a ton of female engineers for a week really help me that much?

Some background first — I’m a software engineer at Amazon, a role I’ve held for a year since I graduated from college. I received a B.S. in CS from Carnegie Mellon University, and this fact usually triggers surprise in people’s faces when they hear that. “Oh wow, that’s a really good school!” is the response I get. I take that as a compliment mostly, but I also sense an underlying tone of disbelief that I, a normal girl who cares about fashion and can carry a conversation, managed to study computer science there. I take pride in this disbelief, because I like proving people wrong. I enjoy shattering their stereotypes of me and seeing them realize that I’m a lot smarter than I “look”. I’ve had this same conversation with fellow attendees this week, which was a big surprise for me. This was the group of people who are all stereotyped against and told not to pursue computer science, yet we have. Almost every single person here, except for recruiters, is an engineer by profession or school. So it was weird to me that when I was recruiting for Amazon at the career fair, I was asked by multiple candidates whether I was an engineer, or if I even worked at Amazon, and the surprise on their faces when they found out I was. Even at Grace Hopper, a celebration of women like us in technology. Really? But that’s for a different discussion.

I want to touch on something I haven’t thought about, and honestly almost forgot about, in the 5 years since it’s happened. I was accepted in to the School of Computer Science at CMU with no prior background or knowledge of computer science. Some might say it’s because I’m a girl, or because CMU had a better acceptance rate that year, but I know it’s because of my awesome SAT scores, high GPA, endless list of extracurricular activities, and well-written essays. Needless to say, when I walked into CS orientation on the first day I was not ready for the prevalent sexism that was to hit me for the rest of my schooling. The numbers itself are staggering — I had a little more than 10 female classmates out of about 200 students in my year. But the real issue came to the surface after my first exam in Intro to Computer Science. The class is meant for all freshmen unless you test out of it. It focuses on fundamentals of computer programming using Python, and serves as an introduction to data structures. My first semester, I was enamored with all college had to offer and barely made it to this class — it didn’t help that it was at 8:30am (still too early for me). The material was overwhelming, but I studied the best I could given the rigor of the course. After my first exam, which was about 1 month into the year, I was asked to meet with our freshmen counselor because of my low score. He looked me straight in the eye, and asked if I wanted to pursue a different major, maybe business? He did not help me go over my mistakes, talk me to me about what issues I was having with the class, or offer any outside help — I wasn’t even aware that we had extra tutoring which I obviously needed. Instead, he jumped straight into the conversation by asking me if I was sure I wanted to do this, because it didn’t seem like I was capable. This was after 1 month of school, and 1 exam. I told him no, give me more time and walked away questioning myself more than I have ever before. I had always succeeded at school, especially in math and science, and I had never been told that it wasn’t for me because I did badly on one exam or class.

The counselor probably doesn’t even remember this conversation, but I want him to know that his lack of belief in me as a student, and willingness to kick me out of the program instead of help me understand and learn, almost cost me my career and most definitely cost me my confidence. Every time I don’t understand what someone is saying in a meeting, I don’t have an answer to someone’s question, or I cause a bug, his words come back to me. I’m not made for this, I’m not supposed to do this, I’m dumb. When I have a successful design review, launch a new feature, or help a co-worker, then I think that I’m lucky or it wasn’t that hard to begin with. This is the mindset that GHC aims to target and obliterate in female computer scientists, but we focus mostly on two other aspects: getting girls to study computer science in college and helping women fight the bias in the workplace. The few years in between are so crucial and something we should have a larger conversation about. Universities and colleges’ efforts to bring more women to the field can’t stop at the application process. The internal workings of these schools is as important, if not more. This is where they retain their talent and attract more, and teach the men in their classrooms to respect every student regardless of their gender. I can’t imagine how many girls this guidance counselor has dissuaded from pursuing computer science because they are not stellar performers right off the bat. But I bet that he has had far fewer conversations, maybe even none, with our male classmates because of a bad test score or difficult course. The stereotype and bias exists everywhere, and it’s time to bring the discussion inside academic institutions and most importantly to the staff and faculty that shape our minds and send us out into the world.

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