My mom doesn’t believe in the impossible. A Chinese immigrant and physics teacher, she arrived in the US with big dreams and limited English. During her first six months in the country, she would visit English-speaking friends to help her write checks—and when she got tired of that, she enrolled in an English class from 7 to 9 a.m. before working a 12-hour day as a waitress. Today, she owns two thriving businesses with my dad.
Cai Gao (@heycai_) is a fullstack software engineer at One Door, where she develops cloud-based merchandising software.
When I was a child, my mom was my source of inspiration. Her confidence in herself and her abilities taught me to be daring. I went to college to study finance, worked as a software consultant, and, fascinated by the inner workings of the company’s products, ended up a programmer. Today, I’m a technical lead with a team of engineers.
Being daring worked out for me, as it did for my mom. Now, reflecting on my career in the wake of the ongoing, important discussions about gender imbalance in tech, I believe there are four groups critical to bucking the brogrammer culture and encouraging women in STEM.
First are local governments. The tech industry talks a lot about supporting female engineers at the national level, but some of the most important work is—and should be—done locally. Girls need a low-cost, low-pressure space to play and experiment with code if they are to develop an interest in programming. Coding bootcamps are great, but they often require substantial commitments of time and money. Local libraries and schools should allocate funds to host free programming workshops. There, girls could try out coding and see how they like it, and local engineering talent could gain an opportunity to tutor and teach the next generation.
Second are local organizations. Living in Boston, I’m an active participant in meet-ups and programs designed for women in engineering, like Girls Who Code and She Geeks Out. Boston also has the world’s first free-standing public innovation center, the Cambridge Innovation Center’s District Hall, where aspiring tech entrepreneurs can exchange ideas, engage in white-boarding sessions, and, of course, mentor women in STEM fields. These are all great initiatives, but they fly under the radar. Local organizations should advertise their events to local high schools and community colleges, to ensure the next generation can participate in these events.
Third are companies. Firms can start with fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace for all genders, races, and colors. No self-respecting and capable woman wants to be treated—or paid—like a second-class citizen; such treatment sometimes leads female engineers to leave the field entirely. Companies should give women the opportunity to lead from day one. This means creating programs that tell women, “We want and expect you to take the lead one day,” and sending female staffers to leadership trainings and conferences.
When technology companies create an engineering-driven culture where playing with new things is the norm, it encourages all employees to participate and innovate. Holding hackathons and engineering-improvement days are important for cultivating an open and forward-thinking culture.
Fourth are engineering managers. Women now represent 47 percent of the US workforce, but only 12 percent of computer scientists are women. At One Door, where I work (and where 25 percent of managers are female), women make up 30 percent of the engineering team, and good software engineering managers are one reason why. I’ve had managers who took time to help me when I didn’t understand a programming concept or a piece of complex code. I’ve been encouraged to vent, to complain, and to celebrate, and have never felt discriminated against because of my gender or race.
But news reports make clear: This is not the case at many companies. Managers should advocate for their employees so they don’t feel left out or that their accomplishments are unnoticed. Managers who have one-on-ones with their employees regularly create an environment in which employees feel valued, allowing them to ask direct questions about issues they face. Engineering managers are critical in helping to create a workplace that’s attractive to everyone.
My advice to women who want to break into STEM: Be authentic and believe in yourself. If you were called smarty-pants growing up, then be a smarty-pants, study, and do the really hard stuff. If you are opinionated, then be opinionated and share your voice. Your voice could very well be the reason we go to Mars, battle climate change effectively, or perfect self-driving car technologies.
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