In our Women Who Inspire series, we’ll be talking to influential women who are making a difference in their communities and the world at large. Through their leadership, we are inspired to do better, work smarter, and continue to create opportunities for women in STEM.
Helen Hastings is a senior in the computer science program at Stanford, and she’s already changing the way people think of women in STEM with her work at she++. The organization seeks to dismantle the untrue stereotype that computer science is not a career for women. Hear more about why she loves computer science and her passion for helping women realize that they do belong in STEM careers:
What inspired you to pursue a STEM-related career?
I’ve always enjoyed and had a knack for numbers, logic and problem solving. Computer science allowed me to utilize my logical skills to solve more creative and open-ended problems with direct impact on the technologies that I use every day, and to do so without fancy or expensive materials – just a bit of processing power and willingness to debug.
What do you love about STEM most?
I love learning about new topics within computer science and technology every quarter at school. It’s empowering to know that what I can build for classes is not only practical and useful in the real world, but shows my own originality and innovation. Additionally, the more I learn within the field, the more I realize that in technology there are so many unsolved problems and problems that are just waiting to be solved in a better or more efficient way, and I’m becoming equipped to be the one to solve them.
Why do you think women are leaving the STEM arena?
At the college level, I see women get discouraged because they see the vocal and talented students who were lucky enough to get early exposure to computer science and fit the mainstream image of “smart,” and they unfairly compare themselves to only these people. I also see talented STEM women move into softer fields because they “fit in” better or because the shift would “better utilize their social skills.”
What advice do you have for women technologists that are struggling on all male teams?
Conforming is not the way to success; owning your individuality and what you uniquely bring to the table is. Reject the praise of being one of the gang or one of the guys – what makes you valuable is your originality. You can make your mark in the technology industry not by molding yourself into what you think success in Silicon Valley looks like, but by owning who you are and what you stand for. With individualism comes originality, which is key to creating technology for everyone, everywhere.
What advice can you give women who are seeking a career in a STEM-related field?
Learn about stereotype threat and unconscious bias so you can catch yourself when you falter. You are at least as smart and talented as the people who like to be the loudest in the room. Own your voice and be confident: you know your stuff and have so much to contribute. Be a role model for those younger than you.
Were there any mentors who have made an impact on your life? If so, who were they and how did you connect?
Since entering college, the ambitions and talent of the she++ co-founders Ayna Agarwal and Ellora Israni have compelled me to not only have confidence in my technical skills, but to be a leader and a positive force for women in technology. I also admire Sheryl Sandberg because of her courage and resilience in a field where identifying yourself as and speaking out as a woman can be dangerous to your career.
Who are some of the women you think are game-changers in the Technology industry right now?
I love following the work of my role model Megan Smith, former Google VP and current White House CTO. Her passion to change the world through technology shines every time I hear her speak. I’m eager to see how she can help DC make technologically knowledgeable decisions – they really need someone like her there right now.
What do you think will have the strongest impact on closing the gender gap in STEM-related careers?
Rebranding what it means to be a technologist: changing the imagery and stereotypes associated with people who are good at STEM. We can accomplish this by showing girls the awesome things they can do with STEM, and helping make the awesome women in STEM more visible and influential.
And what can employers do to retain more women in STEM?
Don’t assume just because your employees are nice and well-intentioned individuals that your company operates in a completely gender-egalitarian way and that it is a meritocracy. Train everyone in your company about unconscious bias. Don’t be afraid of gender – have open conversations about your diversity statistics, what’s working for the women at your company and what isn’t.
Connect with Helen on Twitter.