Reshma Saujani, a successful New York lawyer and businesswoman, was running for a congressional seat in 2010, and was touring a lot of local schools. She noticed something amiss: in all the computer science classrooms, there were a lot of boys hard at work learning programming, but very few girls. Although Saujani lost the race, she gained a mission: fill those classrooms with girls. She founded the nonprofit group Girls Who Code and has helped tens of thousands of young women learn skills that are valuable in the 21st century job market.
Saujani’s parents were Ugandans of Indian descent in the 1970s when dictator Idi Amin expelled them as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign. They settled in Chicago, where Saujani was born and raised. She graduated from the University of Chicago and earned a master of public policy at Harvard and a law degree from Yale before embarking on a career in law and business. Today she is married to tech entrepreneur Nihal Mehta, and runs the nonprofit organization she founded.
Saujani will speak at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s NJ Conference for Women on Friday, October 28, 2016 from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Westin Forrestal Village. Along with Saujani, two other prominent businesswomen will speak. Sallie Krawcheck, CEO of the Ellevate women’s business network, earned the nickname “the last honest broker” as an executive at Sanford Bernstein (U.S. 1, January 6, 2016.) Denise Morrison is the CEO of Campbell’s Soup. (U.S. 1, October 19). There are also panels and professional development workshops. Tickets are $125. For more information, call 609-924-1776 or visit www. Princetonchamber.org.
Saujani participated in a Q&A with U.S. 1 via E-mail:
You founded Girls Who Code after seeing that computer science classrooms you visited lacked girls. What made you look for this in the first place, and what made you recognize the significance of this problem?
When you run for office you visit a lot of schools, a lot of classrooms, and meet a lot teachers. The district I was running in included some of the poorest zip codes in the country and some of the wealthiest, so in a single afternoon on the trail I would meet kids who had every gadget imaginable and kids in other schools with no access to a computer. So I would walk into computer science classrooms at some of the schools and I would see a sea of boys and maybe two or three girls. It became more and more apparent to me that as our tech sector was growing faster and faster, there were entire populations at risk to lose out. As someone who is passionate about policy, I became convinced that teaching girls to code was a problem that desperately needed to be fixed.
Do you know how to program yourself?
I’m learning! For a while I felt embarrassed about that. How could someone with no formal background in computing start an organization called Girls Who Code? But I was passionate about this issue and took the risk anyway.
Did you ever consider a career in technology when you were a girl?
You would think that because my dad was an engineer I would’ve likely ended up in the field, but computing just didn’t feel like an option for me. Like so many other women and girls, I grew up thinking computer science was nerdy and something only boys really did. So I opted out.
That experience stuck with me though, and one of the ways Girls Who Code is committed to closing the gender gap in tech is to shift culture. We know images of what a computer scientist does and looks like has an enormous impact on getting girls interested in the subject. We have to address those cultural barriers if we intend to fix the problem once and for all.
There is a debate right now about whether the lack of women in high positions at technology companies is due to a “pipeline” problem — not enough girls learning to code — or whether it’s because of systemic sexism. What’s your position?
Either way you slice it, the fact is there’s a real issue happening here. I think what this debate really points at is there’s a talent issue and there’s a culture issue. By 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs open in computing. U.S. graduates are on track to fill 28 percent of those jobs and women are on track to fill 3 percent. Tech jobs are some of the highest paying, fastest growing jobs out there, and women are getting left behind. Programmatic interventions address the pipeline issue, but it’s equally important to address the cultural barriers that keep young women from sustaining interest further along in their careers.
At Girls Who Code, we seek to address all the barriers to entry by giving more girls access to computer science through our clubs and summer immersion programs, building sisterhood through efforts like our Girls Who Code Loop app, and shifting culture by introducing girls to role models and mentor in the fields they aspire to.
What can companies do to better recruit and retain women coders?
If you build a culture that encourages diverse opinions and viewpoints, good talent will find you and you’ll be better suited to retain good talent as well. Do men and women have an equal voice at the table? Are women compensated equally to their male counterparts? Does the culture support care-taking? We all play a part in making our workplace a more equitable environment.
Thousands of students have now learned to code through your organization. Were there any girls you met whose stories especially affected you?
This generation of young women is amazing. We had two girls in our Clubs program find a technical solution to lead poisoning because of what they were seeing in Flint, Michigan. We had a group of students in Atlanta build a game called “A Game for Justice” to raise awareness about the racial inequalities, police brutality, and gun violence they’re seeing in the United States. Another group this year built an app to help women of color find hair products. Name any issue, our girls are solving it.