In our Women Who Inspire series, we are talking to the women who are driving change and innovation at AT&T. Through their passionate efforts, we are inspired to do better, challenge ourselves and our expectations, and continue to promote the growth of women in STEM.
Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, has a long history of closing gender gaps. From being the first Indian American woman to run for the U.S. Congress to her book Women Who Don’t Wait in Line, which advocates for a new model of female leadership, she believes in charting your own course personally and professionally. Did we mention that she was also named one of Fortune’s 40 Under 40 and one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in New York?
By the end of 2016, more than 40,000 girls will have gone through Girls Who Code's Clubs and Summer Immersion Programs.
Hear why Reshma’s obsessed with growing the Girls Who Code movement:
What inspired you to pursue a STEM-related career?
My background isn’t in coding. I was a lawyer and politician before starting Girls Who Code. I started the organization after seeing the gender gap firsthand on the campaign trail while I was running for Congress. I would walk into Computer Science classrooms across New York City and see a sea of boys and maybe one or two girls. It was so clear to me that as the tech industry was growing and growing, huge populations were at risk to lose out. When I lost the campaign, I decided to focus my efforts on addressing the gender gap issue. That’s when I started Girls Who Code.
What do you love about your job most?
I bound out of bed every morning thinking about how to scale Girls Who Code to reach more girls. I'm obsessed with building this movement. We’ve taught over 13,000 girls to date through our Clubs and Summer Immersion Program. By the end of this year we’ll have taught a total of 40,000 girls across all 50 states. Knowing we’re making a difference in the lives of so many young women is incredibly motivating.
What’s the most fascinating aspect of your field to you?
In 2012, I started the organization to teach girls to code. What fascinated me was that by teaching them to code, I had socialized them to be brave. Coding is an endless process of trial and error, trying to get the right command in the right place, with sometimes just a semicolon making the difference between success and failure. It requires perseverance. Too many girls enter our programs afraid to fail or are overly concerned with doing things perfectly. I call it the bravery deficit, and I believe it’s why women are underrepresented in STEM, in C-suites, in boardrooms, in Congress, and pretty much everywhere you look.
Were there any mentors who have made an impact on your life?
Yes, they span across so many different industries! I also love being a mentor to so many of our girls. Supporting someone in their journey can have a huge impact on their confidence and perseverance. It’s why introducing girls to mentors and role models in computing is such an important part of our programs. I’m grateful to partners like AT&T who provide employee mentors at our host sites.
What advice can you give women who are seeking a career in a STEM-related field?
Get comfortable with imperfection. It applies to any career. If you’re too afraid to fail, you’ll never learn from those experiences or take the risks that will serve you in the long run. I’ve failed a lot in my career, but it’s taught me to be resilient and has given me more confidence to go after my dreams.
Which female leaders do you admire and why?
Megan Smith, CTO of the United States, is a powerful signal and role model for girls. As part of her work, she has lifted up and promoted the contributions of women to computer science.
What advice do you have for women technologists who are struggling on all-male teams?
Speak up! The first step in solving any problem is acknowledging there’s one in the first place. More often than not, your team members are willing to listen.
What do you think will have the strongest impact on closing the gender gap in STEM-related careers?
At a time when there’s an unprecedented amount of attention on universal access to computer science education, the gender gap in computing is actually getting worse, not better. Initiatives that don’t focus on sparking and sustaining girls’ interests only perpetuate the same issues we’re seeing today. To actually solve the gender gap problem, we need programs designed specifically to spark and sustain girls’ interest; exposure alone isn’t enough.
Why do you think women are leaving the STEM arena? And what can employers do to retain more women in STEM?
I believe if you build a culture that encourages diverse opinions and viewpoints, good talent will find you. A good company culture can make such a difference in not only attracting but also retaining top talent. Everyone plays a role in ensuring our workplace is an equitable environment, and a few important signals are men and women have an equal voice at the table, women are compensated equally to their male counterparts, and the culture supports care-taking.
Who are some of the women you think are game-changers in the technology industry right now?
Our girls! Name any issue, our girls are solving it. We had a group of AT&T Summer Immersion Program students in Atlanta build a game called “A Game for Justice” to raise awareness about the racial inequalities, police brutality, and gun violence they’re seeing in the United States. We had two girls in our Clubs program find a technical solution to lead poisoning because of what they were seeing in Flint, Michigan. Another group this year built an app to help women of color find hair products. It’s amazing to see girls using technology every day to solve problems in their communities.
What advice do you have for women who are hesitant about pursuing STEM because they are entering a male-dominated arena?
Find a community – whether it’s a Girls Who Code Club at your school or a group of students with similar interests at your university. Having a support network that’s got your back is so important whenever you try something new. And if you don’t have built-in community at your school, start one! Same goes for mentors. Being a mentor for someone else can be equally as motivating as having one.