The Lenny Interview: Reshma Saujani

A conversation with the founder of Girls Who Code.

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There's been a lot of dialogue recently —best-selling books written, entire foundations created — about how women can succeed in the 21st-century workplace, which is still structured and dominated by men. This conversation has been going on for a long time. My grandmother taught her daughters (and me) to dream big and that they could achieve anything they worked hard for. But she also taught us that as women of color, we would have to work twice as hard — and be twice as good — as our white male counterparts in order to accomplish the same things. Children growing up in minority households (including Olivia Pope) have been hearing this for decades, and the maxim has been adapted to other contexts as well. In tech, it may play out in the "prove-it-again" expectation, defined by law professor and work-life expert Joan Williams as when women have to "prove themselves over and over again — their successes discounted, their expertise questioned."

But getting women represented in the upper levels of tech is not just about changing institutional biases. For Reshma Saujani, it's also about encouraging women to be more courageous and bold. As the founder of Girls Who Code, which provides computer-science education to young women around the country, Reshma believes in teaching them that lesson young. She thinks that girls in particular must be taught to be brave and take risks rather than be raised to be perfect and play it safe. Reshma thinks this "bravery deficit" accounts for women's underrepresentation in STEM fields "and pretty much everywhere you look."

What follows is a conversation with Reshma about what drew her from politics to tech, why we need to raise girls who are willing to fail, and how to start solving STEM's diversity problem.

Meena Harris: You started Girls Who Code in 2012, while you were running for office for the second time, to be the New York City public advocate. Why did you start the organization?

Reshma Saujani: In 2010, I lost my race for Congress, and I was broke and humiliated, with no contingency plan. The biggest thing for me was that I had met all these girls on the campaign trail, and I didn't want to let them down. I was thinking about how I could make the most impact. I knew I wasn't going to go back to the private sector; I hated it. I knew I wanted to be in service, and so as I thought about how I could give back, there was this issue of girls and technology that kept coming back to me.

In 2010, the tech boom in New York was resurging again. Facebook was here, Google was here, we were starting to build incubators. You were really feeling this kind of tech community that was growing. The fact that women were absent from that growth — at a time when we were the majority in college and in our labor force, and 40 percent of breadwinners — didn't make sense to me.

I spent most of 2011 and half of 2012 just understanding the problem. How has this decline happened? Why aren't girls interested? Are we pushing them out? What's the role of culture? How are we teaching them? I came up with an idea to do a summer immersion program. At that time, it was eight weeks, every day, and 20 girls. I asked a friend to borrow his conference room to host our very first one, and we bought the girls pizza. I just thought that Girls Who Code was a great name, so I went on GoDaddy and bought it.

I wasn't intending to build a national organization. The first one was just incredible. Most of the girls that we picked were from families under the poverty line, so they had little to no access to coding, much less computers. It was just powerful. They not only fell in love with coding, but the things that they wanted to build were about making the world better. One girl built websites for women who are running bodegas, because they didn't have them. Another built an algorithm to help detect whether a cancer is benign or malignant. They were constantly thinking about their world and community, and how to make it better.

MH: In your TED talk you focus on the notion of socialization as something that is accomplished through teaching girls to code. How do you equip coders with professional preparedness, to be not just exceptionally trained engineers but also skilled leaders, managers, and corporate citizens?

RS: When I was writing my TED talk I was really struggling with this, because I didn't want to suggest that "If you learn how to code, you'll learn how to be brave." I think there's a lot of women who learn to code but then still don't raise their hand, or still don't ask for what they're worth, or still don't quit the job that they absolutely hate.

In many ways for women, it's about teaching something, or trying to do something that you don't necessarily think you're good at. I will tell parents, "If your daughter loves gymnastics, but she's horrible at soccer, make her go to soccer class." Oftentimes the minute we think we're not good at something, we'll stop doing it.

MH: Girls Who Code talks about giving girls "hard and soft skills needed to become the technologists." The hard skills are obviously the coding. What are the soft skills?

RS: It's not just learning HTML. It's problem-solving and computational thinking. That is at the core of our curriculum, requiring the girls to make a presentation, or when someone comes in to give a talk, expecting that everyone is going to ask questions. It's about having the confidence to ask questions, to participate, to speak up for yourself, and to persevere. That's where the coding piece is really important. Learning to code is all trial and error, and you can get frustrated and give up. Getting girls to not give up and to stick with it gives you that euphoric moment when you get it right, which is powerful.

MH: You believe that the gender gap in tech is "the biggest domestic issue of our time." What's the second biggest issue?

RS: The way we speak about race in this country, whether it's mass incarceration, or the way we talk about immigrants and Muslims, makes me feel like we've lost a little bit of our humanity. I think about my parents coming to this country with nothing, and the American Dream, where we just welcomed people. It feels like now there's a fight between whose America it is. It's worse than ever, it seems, and it feels like people don't think they have to police their own feelings or thoughts, and that's scary.

MH: To show that Girls Who Code is closing the gender gap in tech, you mention that the organization has grown to 10,000 participants nationwide, the same number of women who graduate each year with a degree in computer science. Still, we know that not nearly as many women graduate with computer-science degrees as men. Even though young girls are more exposed to STEM, and they're excelling, too, the professional workforce doesn't reflect the same increases in representation. In fact, for computing and engineering, the gender gap has been widening rather than shrinking. Why do you think that is?

RS: That's one of the things that we think about all the time. A significant amount of women and people of color at technology companies will leave in the first three years. What's the point in building a pipeline if it's just going to continue to be leaky? And if you're the only Latina in your classroom, and your teacher never calls on you, and all the guys pretend that they're doing so well and that they understand everything, and that you're just an idiot who doesn't understand, you're going to drop out.

I feel like we're an intervention, and we're building an alumni network to really provide a sense of community that's supporting you, that you can ask questions to, that just tells you that you're doing great when you probably are doing great. That changes how you feel about yourself, your performance, and your ability, and it's going to help keep you resilient. Right now women and people of color don't have community with one another in computer-science departments. We really need to build that.

Secondly, with a lot of these tech companies, it seems as though when they're doing college-internship programs, they're pretty close in parity when it comes to gender, and they're doing much better when it comes to people of color. But when it's time to give full-time offers, that number drops significantly. What happens? Is it culture? Is it that women and minorities didn't have a great experience and decide instead to work at McKinsey, Deloitte, or in government? Understanding what is going on at that place in time, where the pipeline is leaking, is important. I haven't seen any real data, and I think big companies need to come together and help, and share information with one another, and with organizations like us, to really understand what's going on there.

MH: What are the ways that companies can make real efforts to support women professionals in the tech space? For example, GE has committed to hiring thousands of female engineers in the next several years. At Slack, we are trying to build the tools that will allow us to go beyond hiring to look at whether we are actually paying, promoting, engaging, and retaining women at the same rates as men. What's the baseline for what companies should be doing?

RS: I'm OK with quotas, personally. I set goals for our organization. Companies should set goals and meet them, because it's not a question of aptitude. We're not asking you to hire somebody who isn't excellent. We're asking you, basically, to make a commitment to find those excellent people and retain them.

MH: If the baseline is having a quota, or setting a goal, then how do you get to the next step to retain? Is it inclusion?

RS: I don't know if people feel included if you don't have critical mass, if you feel like you're one of none. It's the same reason why someone like you is attracted to Slack, because when you go into your interview, or walk around the office, it feels like people look like you, and it's the kind of place you want to work in. If you don't feel like that, and you're working really hard every day, you're not going to stay.

MH: Do you think our systems hold women to a different standard that can limit them from achieving status and transcending the glass ceiling?

RS: I still think we live in a world that doesn't like strong women. We tear powerful women down, for sure. But by creating more powerful women, that becomes the norm. That's my philosophy of change; it's infiltration. Eventually you have so many women there, and that just becomes what is.

MH: There's been a lot of discussion this election season about feminism and in particular feminism's so-called generation gap. Some have argued that young women experience a "rude awakening" once they've been in the workforce, where they actually experience inequality and gender discrimination that didn't previously have personal relevance. Do you think that this sort of late-stage feminism exists, and if so, is it something we need to preemptively warn our girls about?

RS: I find it interesting that Girls Who Code is so popular amongst girls in a generation of millennials that don't really see gender. How did that happen? Most girls under the age of 15 or so don't use he and she, instead using they and them. How is it that we have tens of thousands of girls that are part of an organization called Girls Who Code that [don't think it's] about gender? It's because they see it as empowerment, so it's not as if they join Girls Who Code because the tech industry discriminates against women. Instead, it's "come build awesome things with some awesome girls, and make new friends." Part of it is about messaging. You're right, because I don't think that they've yet felt the discrimination piece that you feel. They're not experiencing it.

MH: You've dedicated yourself to promoting the achievement of young girls. How do you approach becoming a new mom to a little boy? What do you think about, and what do you and your husband talk about with regard to parenting a son?

RS: In my work with Girls Who Code, I've come to appreciate how much symbols and role models matter in the way that we raise and socialize our kids. Just as I work to combat stereotypes of programmers at work, I'm conscious of the signals that I send at home with my son. I think a lot about what I'm teaching him about gender norms and what's "masculine" or "feminine" — from the posters we hang in his room to the costumes we get him for Halloween. I want him to know that he can dress up like Elsa from Frozen or Yoda from Star Wars and that he can idolize Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton. I also want him to know that Mommy goes on business trips, and I often bring him when I travel so he learns this firsthand.

Meena Harris is senior policy manager at Slack. She is also the creator of I'm an Entrepreneur, Bitch, a brand that supports and promotes women's economic empowerment.

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