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STEM

Is the Lack of Women in STEM about Individual Choices?

A response to Juliet de Baubigny’s post “The Tech Sector Needs More Women; Here’s How You Can Make It Happen.” in Forbes.

As an advocate for women in technology, I was drawn to the promise of a recent Forbes article called “The Tech Sector Needs More Women; Here’s How You Can Make It Happen.” After reading Juliet de Baubigny’s post, I came away troubled with her reasoning for women being missing in the tech field.

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What Doesn't Kill Us

What doesn’t kill us…

After writing the last post about my mentor Geri Larkin and watching the PBS documentary “Makers: Women Who Make America,” I started to think about my own past and how my journey led me to this place with this business.

I won’t go all the way back to childhood, just back to college and my decision to pursue a degree in Computer Science. One friend, Pat Draper, was instrumental in that decision. He had Sherpa’ed me through challenging terrain and was often my confidante regarding my frustration. Pat introduced me to my initial role model, Grace Hopper, and then many other female programmers. I think he realized the terrain would be rough, but he was always there for me.

Once I began taking programming classes outside of Lyman Briggs (a college within the college at Michigan State University), I hit my first bump in the road in the computer lab. Time spent using the computer terminals was limited, and the mother of all rules was this: “No saving a terminal for yourself or someone else with coats and backpacks.”

One day, I was working late in the lab and had to leave to go to the bathroom. The lab was EMPTY save myself. I left and came back to find a professor sitting at my computer. My backpack and jacket were thrown on the floor.

Needless to say, it took me a few moments to take in the situation and then ask him, “What happened? Why is all my stuff on the floor and why are you using my computer?” He just pointed at the sign and said, “You can’t save a computer.” I replied, “But there are all these computers available, I just had to go the bathroom, why would you do that?” His exact words to me were this, “I can’t help if you women take so long in the bathroom!” He never turned to look at me. He never apologized. I left the computer lab crying. Welcome to computer science.

I wish I could tell you that this was my only experience of sexism I faced at MSU. But I would be lying. Although many of my peers were supportive, many faculty were not. Without going into all the details, I will tell you this: I was specifically told that computer science was not a field for women, and I didn’t belong. Needless to say, I was thrilled when MSU finally hired a female faculty member, Dr. Betty Cheng! Between Dr. Cheng and my friend, Yolanda who was working on her Master’s in Computer Science, I was able to voice my concerns and keep my spirits up in the face of constant belittling.

Unfortunately, sexism followed me into the working world. Here is one of my ‘favorite’ stories. One employer had a dress code: Women must wear suits with skirts and nylons. Heels were acceptable, but not too high. Here’s the problem: There were times I had to crawl underneath desks to configure wiring, network desktops, connect printers, etc. Very hard to do in heels and a skirt and maintain your dignity. So I wore pants. Guess what happened? I was reprimanded and told to wear a skirt. When I explained why I needed to wear pants, a meeting was called to discuss the dress code. The solution? If a woman needed to wear pants, she had to change into a matching skirt before coming into the office. As long as I purchased a three-piece (jacket, pants and skirt) ensemble, I was following the code.

You’ve heard the statistic: For every dollar a man makes, a woman is paid 78-cents to do the same job. I experienced this first-hand in another job when I discovered a newly hired male colleague was being paid about $10K more. Of course I confronted the higher-ups. Their response? “You shouldn’t know these things. The person who told you could be fired. But we won’t, as long as you keep your mouth shut.”  So, I did.

Then I thought I had landed my dream job. Touted as an extremely progressive company, this organization had even won an award for having a female-friendly workplace. And for a while, it was a great place to work — until I got married. At team meetings, the department leader would ask me when I was getting pregnant, or if I were performing my “wifely duties.” Of course I was shocked and embarrassed, but laughed it off, until a co-worker told me his behavior wasn’t acceptable. So, in private, I asked him to please stop the comments. His response: “Oh, you’re one of those girls, you can’t take it!” and the teasing and inappropriate questions only increased. As a last resort, I made an appointment with the new head of HR, who just happened to be a woman.

I scheduled the meeting and made my mental list of what I wanted to say. I wanted to talk with her, woman-to-woman, and share my experiences in the workplace. I wanted some guidance as to what I should do. And I was positive she would reprimand the department leader and make him stop his offensive behavior. I was nearly at my wit’s end. I was excited. I was nervous. But I was certain she could set things right. And I’ll never forget what she said: “Ashima, I’m sorry you’re experiencing this, but you’re in a man’s world and you have to get used to little comments like this from time to time.”

I was speechless and stunned. I left her office with little breath and a heavy heart. I cried. Had dinner with a friend. We held hands and cried. We cried for all the women in the workplace past, current and future who had — or will — experience such blatant sexism.

There’s a saying: What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. And after watching “Makers” and recalling these past experiences, I realized that collectively, they made me who I am today. My determination to prove the naysayers wrong has made me a strong person and better programmer and a stellar business owner. But I couldn’t have done it without Pat, (along with Rich, Mike, Donna, Paula and more people than I can name in one blog post.) I cannot thank them enough for their unwavering support.

I am doubtful that sexism will end but I am hopeful that the “makers” of tomorrow will continue to fight for equality for everyone, man or woman. And if ever I encounter the unacceptable behaviors I recounted in this blog, I will do everything in my power to make it right.

Be Nice!

Compassion… pass it on!

Today was an amazing and thought filled day… I say this because I saw two totally different movies that moved me in a way I didn’t think was possible. Let me try to explain in writing (I’m much better at talking, I wish I could talk my way through a blog)….

I was invited to watch Miss Representation with a group of women, all in high school, and discuss the movie. I don’t often get asked by young people to engage, so this was an opportunity I wasn’t go to let pass by. Also, I’ve been wanting to see this movie. These women are part of a group called Young Women for Change, a program that is run through the Michigan Women’s Foundation.

Let me also mention the other movie, The Lorax. We went as a family and this was Zola’s (my daughter) first time at a movie theater. It was exciting yet nerve wracking as I wasn’t entirely sure how she would behave in the movie, she’s only three. Also, although I know The Lorax, I was really expecting to be bored and focused more on her, especially after reading some of the comments from various critics. When will I ever learn to ignore the critics?!

After coming home from The Lorax, I found something gnawing at me… like I needed to write down my thoughts, but what were the thoughts? I wasn’t entirely sure…. but I felt like a something was bubbling deep inside of me and had to be unleashed. I had to find a way to share that with all of you. Something has happened to me…. deep, powerful and profound. So, this blog post was started…. I’m still unsure how it will end, so let’s see what happens.

Miss Representation took me on a journey through the dark side of how women are represented or the lack of women’s true representation in government, media, technology, etc…. things that really impact us all. The Lorax took me on a different journey, one where we misuse our natural and wonderful resources. Yes, one was more like a documentary and the other a “cartoon”, but both had strong messages and made me feel inspired and also entirely overwhelmed.

Although the journeys were quite different, both movies were very inspiring. And, my head kept coming back to the fact that they were similar. Not just in the length of the movies, or the fact that they had themes or that they were telling stories. Something else was smacking me across the face in each journey. The part that had me feeling inspired. But, I couldn’t figure out what it was. What was that thing smacking me?!

So, I stood in that feeling and breathed. I sat in silence and dark and just breathed. I breathed in the comments made by the young women after the Miss Representation. I breathed in my notes from Miss Representation. I breathed in my daughter’s comments after The Lorax. I breathed in the conversation David and I had on the drive home after The Lorax. I breathed it all in…. my thoughts blended together with my breath. My breath took my thoughts around the earth and back. And, what came back to me was a loud sound of a single word… COMPASSION.

I was shocked. I expected to hear GREED or EVIL or something negative, but instead, I hear the beautiful word.. COMPASSION.

I rumble through the notes in my head…Compassion? Seriously?! Universe, please help me make sense of this word… compassion. Why is this the word you serve me… let me see if I can break it down for myself here with you as my companion.

I’m not sure I saw much compassion for women in Miss Representation? The stats were alarming.

  • 78% of girls hate their bodies by the age of 15
  • 65% of girls have an eating disorder
  • Women are 56% of the population yet only hold 17% of position in Congress (less now that Olympia Snowe isn’t running again) and 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs

So, where the heck do that word come in? Why compassion? The movie presented some thought on why these stats were our reality. Why women were struggling so much at so many levels. Why men saw women as objects to be obtained and why women accepted it. But, compassion? Ummm… Wow. Not what I expected to hear in my head.

The Lorax. Was that a compassionate movie? What happens?


SPOILER ALERT, if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie and want to be surprised, stop reading.

Well, an individual called an once-ler found an amazing tree (Truffula) with beautiful tuffs that allowed him to make a “thneed”. People buy the thneeds like crazy. He can’t keep up and begins to cut down trees (although he promised The Lorax he would never cut down a tree). His business ends because he cuts down the last tree and cannot make anymore thneeds.

Compassion? Where?

But wait, there is more to both of the stories….

I left out the part in The Lorax where Ted, a young man living in Thneed, goes looking for a tree and the once-ler. He finds him, asked for a tree and instead hears the story. He returns to the once-ler, now an old man, living alone with nothing at all but his sad thoughts, to continue to hear the story of The Lorax and the Truffula trees despite the obstacles in his way. He is finally given a seed by the once-ler and is told “unless he does something, nothing will ever change”. And, he does…. he plants the seed and hopes it will change the world. He has deep compassion for the once-ler and his fellow human beings. He also believes that he can change the way of the future.

With Miss Representation, I found compassion in the women who sat around the table with me. These women, they were A-M-A-Z-I-N-G and will be great leader,s for which I cannot wait! One actually said “we need to get everyone to see this movie, it needs to be broadcast everywhere. Men and women both need to see this movie!” She felt compelled to show it to everyone because she believed that if they saw it, they would surely be changed for the better. She showed deep compassion for those around her being able and willing to change.

It’s just like in The Lorax as the young boy believes that if he can get a tree to grow then everyone will love trees. Once they see that tree, it will change everything. If we can get this movie to everyone, this will surely change everything.

I know, it’s idealist.
I know that we, jaded adults see things differently. Our hard knocks make it hard to see it any other way. Our lens have been fogged up.

But, for an instant, in my breath, I was taken to another place. I feel my lens has been wiped clean. I felt like I had arrived in a place of DEEP, heartfelt compassion. One with breathtaking views and beautiful scenery.

Compassion

So while we adults all continue to complain about the state of our country and the fact that we’re losing good people in government (see Olympia Snowe). While we continue to argue over what is at play here: greed, ego, power, anger, hatred, etc.

Compassion

I ask you to make this pledge with me. Show everyone around you compassion. Even those you disagree with. Those you agree with. Those you dislike intensely. Those who make you life horrible. Those who make your life easy. Bring compassion back to the mainstream.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s not. We’ll fail and fall and make mistakes, but then we should get right back up, dust ourselves off and try again.

We need to take a lesson from all the young people with their idealist, fog-less glasses because in the end…

COMPASSION WILL WIN

I leave you with the quote at the end of The Lorax that made me cry and smile at the same time…

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

Quote by Dr. Seuss in The Lorax