There's been a lot of dialogue recently —best-sellingbooks 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.