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She++ and the Rise of ‘Femgineers’

“Women — and minorities in general — are the greatest untapped brain trust of engineering potential.”

Ayna Agarwal and Ellora Israni cofounded She++, a Stanford-based program designed to encourage more women to become involved in technology.
National Journal
Ellora Israni
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Ellora Israni
Oct. 31, 2013, 2 a.m.

Like many Stan­ford mil­leni­als, El­lora Is­rani and Ayna Agar­w­al entered col­lege, want­ing to make the world a bet­ter place. Is­rani, raised in nearby Por­to­la Val­ley, Cal­if., and Agar­w­al, from Edis­on, N.J., saw In­tro to Com­puter Sci­ence as a prac­tic­al if un­ex­pec­ted choice as a pre-req for many classes in their ex­pec­ted ma­jors.

The in­com­ing fresh­men met so­cially after be­ing as­signed to the same dorm, but took the CS course in sep­ar­ate quar­ters, with sim­il­ar res­ults.

Their am­bi­tions changed.

Still de­term­ined to make their mark on the world, they in­stead were in­spired to do it in a dif­fer­ent way. They set out to ad­dress the sig­ni­fic­ant gender in­equit­ies and to in­fuse a thirsty job mar­ket with tech­no­lo­gists of­fer­ing a fe­male per­spect­ive.

As sopho­mores, they launched She++, an ini­ti­at­ive that has grown from its ini­tial daylong con­fer­ence to in­clude a ment­or­ing pro­gram in­volving many wo­men of col­or and, start­ing in Novem­ber, a more ro­bust web­site and forth­com­ing fel­low­ships.

Now, both turn­ing 21 in Novem­ber and set to gradu­ate in spring , they are hailed world­wide as “tech gurus” by The New In­di­an Ex­press, are backed by some of Sil­ic­on Val­ley’s elite firms, and ap­pear at tech con­fer­ences as cata­lysts.

Ac­cord­ing to The New York Times, in 1990-91, wo­men earned al­most 30 per­cent of the bach­el­or’s de­grees in com­puter sci­ence; by 2010, that share had de­clined to 18 per­cent. In May, the Na­tion­al Sci­ence Found­a­tion and the Col­lege Board fun­ded a high school pro­gram geared to churn out more com­puter sci­ent­ists. Ac­cord­ing to their fig­ures:

“Though com­put­ing is among the fast­est-grow­ing areas of pro­jec­ted job growth, the in­dustry is fail­ing to at­tract our na­tion’s most tal­en­ted stu­dents. Of the 1.6 mil­lion bach­el­or’s de­grees con­ferred in 2009-10, only 38,500 (2.4 per­cent) were earned in com­puter sci­ence — and only 6,894 (slightly over one quarter) of those were con­ferred to fe­male stu­dents. White stu­dents earned 60 per­cent of com­puter-sci­ence de­grees in 2009-10, while black/Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and His­pan­ic stu­dents ac­coun­ted for 10 per­cent and 8 per­cent, re­spect­ively, of those earn­ing com­puter-sci­ence de­grees dur­ing the same peri­od.”

Is­rani shares her per­spect­ive of uni­ver­sal com­puter lit­er­acy and of driv­ing more wo­men in­to tech­no­logy, in­clud­ing wo­men of col­or, based on email ex­changes, re­marks at a Mu­nich con­fer­ence she ap­peared at with Agar­w­al, a She++ doc­u­ment­ary, in a joint Change­makers post, and in an in­ter­view with the duo in The Wo­men’s Eye:

This in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Jody Bran­non, has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

An­ya and I nev­er really in­ten­ded to be where we are today. We didn’t as­pire to be nerds. I came to Stan­ford “¦ as a psy­cho­logy ma­jor, and El­lora as a pre-vet, and then we de­cided to take our first com­puter-sci­ence class, and our fates were al­most de­cided for us from there. We changed our minds be­cause of some won­der­ful fe­males in tech who came to cam­pus and in­spired us to pur­sue oth­er paths. We wanted to bring some more ment­ors and role mod­els (to­geth­er) so that high school and col­lege stu­dents could have the chance to de­rive the same in­spir­a­tion we did. Our goal is not to force tech upon wo­men, but rather to provide them a hol­ist­ic view of what it is to be a wo­man in tech and let them de­cide for them­selves. And I think com­ing up with the name “she++” was all the nerdy af­firm­a­tion we needed.

And it was im­port­ant to me to give a lot of girls the op­por­tun­ity to kind of fall in love with what they did the way that I had. I came to real­ize that whatever I wanted to do with my life I was go­ing to have a big­ger im­pact on the world if tech­no­logy was part of my toolkit.

As wo­men learn­ing to pro­gram, we’re not just more com­puter sci­ent­ists. We’re what we like to call “fem­gin­eers.” Fem­gin­eers have not been cod­ing since they were 2 years old. We are not hack­ers in the tra­di­tion­al sense. We want to marry life and love and laughter with the most ground­break­ing tech­no­lo­gies of today in help­ing make our world a bet­ter place.

By 2020, the United States will only have a third of the com­puter sci­ent­ists it needs. U.S. busi­ness will need 1.4 mil­lion com­puter sci­ent­ists. These people are solv­ing the most in­ter­est­ing, sig­ni­fic­ant prob­lems we have today, and they will be in dan­ger­ously short sup­ply. Wo­men — and minor­it­ies in gen­er­al — are the greatest un­tapped brain trust of en­gin­eer­ing po­ten­tial. I’d hate to think that wo­men are be­ing ex­cluded from such a re­ward­ing ca­reer, and from an in­dustry who will really be­ne­fit from hav­ing them, be­cause of something as su­per­fi­cial as a ste­reo­type. If wo­men were rep­res­en­ted in com­puter sci­ence in the same pro­por­tion­al that they are rep­res­en­ted in the un­der­gradu­ate pop­u­la­tion, we would double the num­ber of com­puter sci­ent­ists we are pro­du­cing.

I will say though that it’s in­tim­id­at­ing to walk in­to a room and be the only wo­man. But I don’t think that means I’ve had to work harder — just that I’ve had to de­vel­op as a per­son. It has giv­en me a “tough­er skin,” but I be­lieve that tough­er skin has ac­tu­ally be­nefited me im­mensely in­side and out­side of work, and thus I’m grate­ful for it. I do hope that someday wo­men won’t need a tough­er skin to be tech­nic­al pro­fes­sion­als, be­cause for some wo­men that’s ac­tu­ally the most in­tim­id­at­ing part of it, but for now I’m grate­ful for hav­ing it.

CS is hard — we nev­er said it wasn’t — but it’s also re­ward­ing. The products tech­no­lo­gists touch im­prove the lives of bil­lions of people on a daily basis”“that’s really not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion. Girls see com­puter pro­gram­ming as the work of nerds and bro­gram­mers, not real­iz­ing it’s a field that could ac­tu­ally em­power them to do whatever they want to do bet­ter. Com­puter sci­ence teaches you a really unique way of solv­ing prob­lems and design­ing solu­tions”“and those are prob­lems in­side and out­side tech­no­logy”“that you can’t get any­where else. That way of think­ing really res­on­ated with me.

[At first], it ter­ri­fied me. I felt com­pletely in­com­pet­ent — still do a lot of the time. I think talk­ing about the fact that I still feel un­der­qual­i­fied on a daily basis is one of the best things I can do to dis­pel that fear of in­ad­equacy in oth­er wo­men. I wish someone had forced me to take a CS class — just like they made me learn math and Eng­lish and all the oth­er skills I was go­ing to need for my fu­ture — be­cause that would have pushed me out of my com­fort zone and helped me dis­cov­er something I really love a lot soon­er.

[It teaches you] how to fail. CS is a really it­er­at­ive pro­cess, and you’re not sup­posed to get it right the first time. That’s a really valu­able life les­son as well — to see mis­takes as pro­gress. Per­son­ally, I have a lot of dreams as a tech­no­lo­gist — pro­jects I want to work on, causes I want to ex­plore — and as a per­son. I’m so grate­ful for the sup­port she++ has giv­en me thus far, and I look for­ward to car­ry­ing that for­ward in whatever I do.

We’ve fo­cused more on gender than on race or eth­ni­city in our ef­forts. Be­cause our goal is in­clus­iv­ity, we al­ways try to en­sure we are reach­ing out to a di­verse range of uni­versit­ies, high schools, and com­pan­ies. The ment­ors on our page are rep­res­ent­at­ive of who has chosen to re­spond — noth­ing more.

If we can get to the point where She++ is ir­rel­ev­ant — where there is no paucity of wo­men in tech — that would be phe­nom­en­al. Our long-term goal would be for or­gan­iz­a­tions such as She++ to be su­per­flu­ous due to gender equity in the tech in­dustry, but that’s a long way off.


Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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