Fixing Tech’s Gender Gap

Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, is on a mission to get more young women into computer science. She says the problem isn’t lack of interest. Her non-profit organization has trained thousands of girls to code, and the ranks of female science and engineering graduates continue to grow. And yet men still dominate the tech industry. Saujani believes companies can certainly do more to promote diversity. But she also wants girls and women to stop letting perfectionism hold them back from volunteering for the most challenging tasks and jobs. She is the author of the book Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder.

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ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

GIRLS WHO CODE ALUMNA 1: I would like to be an engineer and hopefully inspire girls and youth in underrepresented neighborhoods to do the same thing.

GIRLS WHO CODE ALUMNA 2: I learned that computer science was not the hard, monotonous engineering that I, and so many women around me, view it as.

GIRLS WHO CODE ALUMNA 1: If you’re not open to stuff like seeing girl coders, you’re not going to think to be a coder. You only see women doing women-dominated jobs; there’s no women in men-dominated jobs.

ALISON BEARD: You’re hearing the voices of young women who are part of Girls who Code – a non-profit with a mission to close the gender gap in computer science.

The organization was founded by our guest today, Reshma Saujani. She didn’t have a math or technology background herself – but during a run for Congress in 2010, she visited several New York schools – and noticed something odd.

STEM labs were filled with boys – not girls. She lost the election, but it inspired her to make educating young women in these subjects her life’s work.

It wasn’t just the lack of female students she saw in coding classes. It was also the national statistics on the dearth of women in tech. Although women earn about 50 percent of science and engineering degrees, they account for less than a third of people employed in those fields. And only a quarter of female science graduates specialize in computer science.

Something still seems to be holding women back from a lot of today’s most interesting and lucrative jobs. Saujani is determined to change that dynamic. She’s not only the CEO of Girls Who Code, but also the author of a new book Brave, Not Perfect. Reshma, thanks so much for coming on the show.

RESHMA SAUJANI: Thank you so much Alison for having me.

ALISON BEARD: Why do you think that it has been such a hurdle to get girls and women pursuing careers in computer science in particular? Because they are graduating with degrees in science and engineering, it’s just they’re not then staying in the workforce.

RESHMA SAUJANI: Well, it’s also weird because the world’s first programmer was a woman. You think about Ada Lovelace and the ENIAC women and Grace Hopper. There have always been women in technology and women in computing, but things started really changing in the 1980’s, where in the 1980’s if you walked into any computer science classroom it would have been 40 percent girls and 60 percent boys. So, really close to parity.

And then those numbers started trickling to where we are now which is less than 20 percent because I think, culture. The 1980’s you saw the birth of the brogrammer and you saw him on Weird Science and Revenge of the Nerds. And when you ask girls what does a computer scientist look like, it looks like a dude with a hoodie sitting in a basement somewhere. And you can’t be what you cannot see.

And so, we started creating the caricature of what it looked like to be a computer scientist and girls didn’t see themselves in it. And I also think that a lot of this has to do with the way that we raise girls. We raise girls to be perfect and we raise boys to be brave. And girls start believing that they’re either good at something or bad at something. And for every single one of us, math is not immediately easy. It’s annoying. It’s challenging. It’s hard. If you get an answer wrong and instead of saying, “Oh wait let me try it again,” you go straight to “I suck,” or “I’m not smart” – You’re going to get turned off that subject especially when you’re raised to do everything perfectly.

ALISON BEARD: But it’s really hard. Especially given societal norms, the way our education and employment systems work. We do want to be perfect because a lot of times perfect is expected of us. So, what are some of the specific strategies that have worked for the girls in the program, the women that you’ve seen and talked to, and for you in your own life?

RESHMA SAUJANI: Yeah, I mean look, I was that girl. I was the perfect immigrant daughter, went to all the right schools, worked at all the right places. Woke up at age 33, pretty much on my floor – just miserable. Because I didn’t understand. I thought if I did everything right I’ll be happy.

And the thing with perfectionism – it’s not only creating a leadership gap, but it’s really causing an unhappiness gap. Women are twice as likely to be depressed than men are. And what we’re seeing right now is so many women are just unsatisfied with their life. They’ve missed opportunities because they don’t think that they’re smart enough or ready or not perfect enough. And we let our great ideas die on the vine. And we see other people pursuing our dreams and we sit there and we’re full of regret and envy, and that creates anxiety and depression and unhappiness.

And so, I, in my life when I ran for Congress and I lost and it didn’t break me, it was like an eye opener, like “Oh my God, I can try things and fail and actually be happier. What?” And so, I started exercising my bravery muscle which I do every day and here are some of the things that I do and that I think other women have done that have worked.

One is: I practice imperfection. So, if you ever get an email from me, it probably has 10 typos and it’s like, definitely doesn’t make sense. So, for a lot of women, if I say to them, practice imperfection. So, send an email with a typo in it. You’ll literally have this collective gasp like what? But think about how much time we spend writing and rewriting and rereading, when we could have been doing other things.

ALISON BEARD: That’s a hard message for an editor to hear actually.

RESHMA SAUJANI: I know. So, I want you to do it this week. So, practice imperfection. Send an email with a typo in it. That’s one way. Secondly, do something you suck at. So, that means doing something not for the sake of getting better at it, but for the sake of being mediocre. So, for me it’s surfing. I cannot swim. That surfboard is super heavy. I don’t like a lot of water, but I make myself go surfing. And I barely get up on the board. But let me tell you, when I walk off that beach I feel so good. I’m standing taller, I feel proud, I feel like I can do anything.

And the third thing is just take one step. I had no business starting Girls Who Code. I didn’t code. But I had an idea. And I was really passionate about this idea. So, I took one step, I went out and bought the URL.

ALISON BEARD: So, can you give me an example of how I might put that advice into practice at work though? How am I supposed to show imperfection when my job is to get everything right? How am I supposed to do something that I suck at when I want my boss to think that I’m competent and someone that she’s happy to still employ? Take one step makes a little bit more sense to me, but talk to me a little bit about how I would implement the other two.

RESHMA SAUJANI: Part of building a bravery mindset means you have to realize and I think Carol Dweck has this amazing quote, that if life were one long middle school, girls would run the world. But it’s not. And the thing that works in the workplace is bravery, not perfection.

So, all this time that you’re waiting to be the perfect leader, a bunch of guys are just passing you by, getting promotion, after promotion, after promotion. So, the first thing I would say more in terms of practicing imperfection is like raising your hand for an assignment that you may like feel prepared to do.

Don’t wait until you’re 100 percent ready. I see this happen with the women I work with at Girls Who Code all the time. I’ll say “Why don’t you take on that project, or do that thing?” And they’ll be like, “Well let me go home and think about it.” And I know what’s going to happen. She’s going to go home and figure out all the reasons why she should say no. And in the meantime, it’s like the guys are like knocking down my door ready to run human resources when they know nothing about human resources.

And the doing thing with something that you suck at – it’s funny. I think I was talking to a mechanical engineering teacher and he was telling me, “before I even put the assignment on the board, the guys are raising their hands, being like, I know the answer.” And he’s like, “you don’t even know what the question is.” Right? But you see how that plays out kind of at work.

Part of it is you don’t have to get an A+ at work. There’s a difference between excellence and perfection. So, I’m not telling women not to be excellent. You should be excellent, but that means you’re enjoying the journey and it’s not about the outcome.

And so, I think the point about doing something you suck at and practicing doing something you suck at in your life, that skillset prepares you for work because you realize that you don’t have to be perfect to lead.

ALISON BEARD: Now, your program has been up and running for some time now and served so many girls. You’re teaching them to code, you’re sharing these strategies. – what outcomes are you seeing in terms of what they go on to do in their lives?

RESHMA SAUJANI: That’s a great question. Well, our alumni are going on to major in computer science at 15 times the national average. The black and Latina alumni are going on to major in computer science at 16 times the national average. You walk into any computer science department in the country and it is full of our alumni. So, I have no doubt that we will close the gender gap in terms of the pipeline. And now the work that needs to be done is to make sure that companies will actually hire them.

The other thing for me, it’s beyond coding. When you think about the numbers of women in STEM who will drop out, even when they declare computer science a major, it’s almost 50 percent. Or, the amount of women who will leave within the first three years at a technology company.

ALISON BEARD: Well, that brings me to my next question, really, because how much of this should be on us trying to be more brave and how much should be on our educational system, on employers to change the way they do business, the way they hire and promote women?

RESHMA SAUJANI: Yeah, see I think that we’re born brave. And I think culture makes us feel like we have to be perfect. And so, I think we’re up against a lot. And some of this stuff is very unintentional.

So, I think when parents are immediately wanting to protect and coddle, they think they’re building confidence. So, when mom’s taking you out of gymnastics because you can’t do a cartwheel because you’re coming home crying every day, and she’s putting you into swimming because she wants you to feel good, she’s doing that because you know, she loves you. And so, I think in many ways the way that we’ve been parenting our girls has just been wrong. Instead of putting them in a cocoon bubble wrap, we have to teach them how to be brave and we have to teach them how to fail.

And I think that the onus is on us as parents, as educators, as aunts and uncles. And I think, look, I think workplaces have to figure out how they too can reward women for imperfection and failure. I tell men all the time, what is your role in building a bravery movement? How are you going to be an ally who’s going basically encourage women to be more brave and to take risks and when you do offer a woman a promotion and she turns it down, now you know maybe it’s not because she’s not wanting it. But she feels like she may not be ready and what’s your role basically, in lifting her up?

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So much has been written about the bro culture in tech. There’s the infamous Google memo. Can a group of brave women really change that culture from the bottom up?

RESHMA SAUJANI: Yes. I see it with my girls already. I see what they’re doing in computer science departments right now. And they’re banding together and they’re standing up for themselves. And they’re speaking out against microaggressions. You see in in the Google walk out with these powerful women and their male allies saying: “You know what? Enough is enough.” I do think that it’s happening.

But I do also think that when we think about bravery in the workplace we see it on the big stage. Whether it is women running for president, or if it’s women who are taking down powerful men like Harvey Weinstein. We first have to learn everyday bravery. How do we stop silencing ourselves? Whether we get cut off in line when we’re getting a cup of coffee and we apologize. Or, we’re in a meeting and we don’t say what we really want to say because we’re waiting to ask the perfect question. Or, we don’t raise our hand up for an assignment because we don’t think we know exactly how to do it, so why bother to even try. It’s that every day bravery conditioning that we have to learn to really take down these bro cultures.

ALISON BEARD: And you mentioned in the book that you’d actually written a response to that Google memo. I know it was postponed due to news and I don’t know if it was ever published but what were some of your key points?

RESHMA SAUJANI: Well, I think my key points is in many – we’ve always heard this said about us, that our brains are wired differently. And I hear this all the time when it comes to girls, well, girls just don’t want to learn how to code. I think it’s time to basically put those arguments to an end. And we have to stand up and talk about what was really at stake in his memo.

And I think the thing about Silicon Valley is, I think many times they pretend to be meritocratic. They pretend to be libertarians. They pretend to say that well, everybody can participate – but it’s simply not true. And in many ways the Valley has lost its way. If we want to be a place where all nerds are welcomed, then let’s make all nerds welcome.

ALISON BEARD: You’re in this odd position though that you’re pushing the tech industry to change its ways, but at the same time you need to partner with them to run your organization. So, how do you navigate that challenge?

RESHMA SAUJANI: I keep it real and I stay authentic, and I never walk away from my truth.

ALISON BEARD: You also told a story about standing up at a tech conference and angering the audience. Tell that story.

RESHMA SAUJANI: I mean I do a lot of that. I think it’s important to speak truth to power. And that doesn’t mean that when you do it, it feels good. And for me, I feel like when I have an opportunity to get in front of a bunch of men in technology, I feel like it is my duty to tell the truth. And to not say what they want to hear, so I can walk away with a million-dollar check.

And that doesn’t mean that when I walk off that stage and they’re staring at me, like, what? And no one comes up to me afterwards and says “what a wonderful speech,” or “thank you” for that which is what happens a lot. That doesn’t for that moment feel bad. It doesn’t always feel good to be brave, immediately. But I feel like I have, I don’t even know how to live my life, Alison in any other way now. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t make some enemies along the way.

ALISON BEARD: What’s your biggest frustration in how these tech companies are approaching diversity?

RESHMA SAUJANI: Yeah, well I don’t want – it bothers me that we continue to talk about this like it’s a pipeline problem. A few years ago I started getting – as our girls got older and they started applying for technical internships in their junior and senior year – I started getting emails from girls being like, Reshma, I applied, I have a 4.0 at Stanford, I applied to X Company and I didn’t even get an interview.

And I started making a list because it became one name, two names, 50 names, 100 names. And when Reshma makes a list it’s not good for anybody. And I was like something’s not right here. And we started surveying our girls and it was really kind of shocking with what we found because there are real cultural problems in companies that need to change.

You can’t have all-male interview panels, right? That should be something that we should solve and fix. We have to stop asking women or men or people of color questions in interviews that make them feel small. We have to stop hiring ourselves. I think for a lot of men who have quite frankly not been working with a lot of women throughout their lives, they don’t know how to behave and we just need to call it for what it is.

And think about retraining almost at the base level, not an hour session on microaggressions or unconscious racism. It’s deep. It’s deep. And we have to treat it that way. So, look, nobody gives up power and that’s really ultimately what we are talking about right now. Letting women and people of color through the gates, that’s giving up power.

ALISON BEARD: Right. What do you say to organizations that push back and say, well we do have gender diversity because our entire HR department is female, or our entire marketing department is female. Why is it so important to have balance across the board and particularly in STEM?

RESHMA SAUJANI: Well, I think, I mean because automation is changing everything about the way that we live and work, and whether its artificial intelligence or data science, every day that goes by women are being left behind.

A story one of my students was telling me about Alexa and Google Home. She was saying Alexa and Google Home are being used by men to lock out their spouses in instances of domestic violence and they’re turning up the music really loud, or they’re locking them out of their homes. Now when you have mostly all male engineers who are building products, they’re not thinking about that are they?

And there’s so many instances about how artificial intelligence and data sensors are quite frankly biased and sexist and racist. And so, we got to be sitting around the table, not just in the marketing departments. We got to be sitting around the table in every department.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. When you decided to start Girls Who Code, did you get any pushback along the lines of oh, why isn’t it “All Underprivileged Kids Who Code?”

RESHMA SAUJANI: I got more pushback like why aren’t you starting boys who code? Or, is it true that, don’t you think it’s going to be, I mean girls brains are just built a little bit differently. I got more of that. I had very strongly felt, so my model is that if you walk – is to have half girls that are in the classroom, under the poverty line and half girls black and Latina.

So, if you walk into any Girls Who Code classroom it looks like American classrooms should look like. Today American classrooms are incredibly segregated. You walk into ours, there’s Black girls, there’s brown girls, there’s gay girls, there’s trans, there’s Muslim girls and these are young girls that have never actually met someone who didn’t look like them – any of them. And so, they’re not only learning about each other, but they’re building future companies together. And that’s the future.

And so, I strongly, strongly feel that that’s the way that we need to teach is by bringing girls together from all walks of lives. So, I’ll literally have a girl who left a homeless shelter in the morning to walk to Barry Diller’s office at IAC. And she’ll be sitting next to somebody who has literally been at private school that cost $50,000 a year. And both of them are so, quite frankly, underserved in terms of their coding education, but they’re also building a friendship and they’re learning about each other. And it’s honestly healing the country in a way that we desperately need right now.

ALISON BEARD: And you feel that there’s great value in that single sex educational environment, even in an extracurricular sense?

RESHMA SAUJANI: A thousand percent. And like —

ALISON BEARD: And why is that?

RESHMA SAUJANI: Well, because I think again, I think that girls are able to kind of come together and learn and fail together. I don’t think we understand – you know, I had this young girl, Isabell come into my office a few months ago and she was saying to her mom, you know mom, I’m not good at math. And she said, “honey what are you talking about? You just got an A on your math test.” And she’s like, “well when I was at school the other day the math teacher asked me to give her the answer and instead of saying I didn’t know it right away, give me more time, I just said I had to go to the bathroom.”

So, there’s often so much pressure that girls are feeling and it’s sometimes from the boys. I mean I’ve had girls tell me that when they’re doing this math assignment on the board, the boys will be like what are you slow? And it’s so painful to hear something like that. And she, and again, girls go from wait I need more time to I’m stupid. I’m not smart. I’m not good enough. And so, I think in single sex environments they’re allowed, they feel comfortable asking questions, or saying “I don’t know the answer.”

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Now, Girls Who Code is a U.S. organization and we’ve had a very U.S.-centric conversation. Are there other countries that are doing a better job of getting women into STEM fields?

RESHMA SAUJANI: Well, we’re going global this year, so now Girls Who Code is global. Yay. So, we’re really starting in the U.S., I mean Canada, U.K. and India. Yeah, I mean look, this is a problem everywhere. And in some places it’s better and some places its worse and some places it’s different.

So, in India for example they have less of a problem in terms of parody for CS majors, but more of a problem in terms of women dropping out, kind of three, four years into their technology jobs. They have less of a problem culturally. They don’t have the pinkification of the toy aisle or the Barbie doll that says “I hate math, let’s go shopping instead.” You watch a Bollywood serial and you’ll see a lot of female engineers. So, I think there’s different problems in different places, but I still don’t think that anyone has really figured it out.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. What is the hardest part of your job day in and day out?

RESHMA SAUJANI: I’m impatient about solving the problem. I get really scared at how quickly automation is happening. I mean I’ve been fighting, I’ve been an activist on women’s issues since I was 13 years old. And I look at the leadership numbers and I’m 43. And in 30 years it’s gotten a little better, but not as much as it, as I want it to. And some of this stuff is in our control.

I talk myself out of things all the time. I silence myself all the time. And then I go home and I ruminate about it. Why did I apologize for that? Why didn’t I – you know? And this morning I feel like a bunch of us, something happened and we all stood up for ourselves and I was just so proud because not every moment is that moment. So, things are changing, but I know in my own life I still have a lot of work to do.

And I just want to say that I think that things can change. If you practice everyday bravery, things can change. I really believe that. And I’ve seen it with six years of teaching my girls and they’re so fierce from this.

ALISON BEARD: Reshma, thanks so much for coming on the show.

RESHMA SAUJANI: Thank you so much Alison for having me.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Reshma Saujani, CEO of Girls who Code, and the author of the book Brave, Not Perfect.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager.

Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.

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