Girls in Tech

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It’s not news that women in technology and engineering have it tough. Even in 2015, we open our morning papers to corporate gender bias or another “ frat party” at Twitter*. We’re appalled but not shocked. If our nation is experiencing a dearth of female engineers and computer scientists**, it’s because women are overlooked, underutilized, and feel isolated in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

But there’s hope. Especially in the DMV area, which is home to professional women and networks dedicated to supporting, encouraging, and connecting girls with a passion for STEM. Natalie Arandia Gutierrez is one of these girls. A sophomore at Washington Lee High School in Arlington, VA, Gutierrez has been living and breathing engineering, technology, and female empowerment her whole life. Her older sister, a computer engineer for AOL, encouraged Gutierrez to pursue a career in STEM in order to one day become, she hopes, an aerospace engineer.

Inspired by the challenges she and her female friends face every day, Gutierrez began reaching out to professional networks with the goal of forming a support group for young women like herself who love STEM. “I wanted us to have a safe space,” she explains, one where she and her friends could relate to and encourage each other without fear of rejection and isolation.

“Isolation is a word that I hear a lot when it comes to women in technology,” says Whitney Vickrey, a Service Delivery Executive at Microsoft and the current Chair of Girls In Technology, a nationally recognized and award-winning committee of DC’s Women in Technology. With a lifetime of personal and technical knowledge, Vickrey and her Vice Chair, Elvina Kamalova, work to empower DMV girls interested in STEM through networking and mentorship programs like Sharing Our Success and the Air Force’s Cyberpatriot competitions.

Retention is key to turning the tide for women in STEM careers, so Vickrey also works to pinpoint just when STEM begins to lose girls. “We’re the only ones in the room, we’re the only ones on call, we’re the only ones on a team,” Vickrey theorizes, “and it goes all the way back to grade school and middle school.” Vickrey describes a Falls Church career fair during which she enjoyed lively discussions about Minecraft and Microsoft with sixth grade girls. “The seventh and eighth grade girls? Not around.”

Although some girls exit or disengage with STEM during middle school, Dori Roberts, founder and CEO of Engineering for Kids, has witnessed the other side of the equation. As an educator, she encountered high school girls who had never considered the possibility of becoming an engineer or pursuing technology. “I feel like women aren’t introduced to engineering and [don’t realize] it could be a career choice for them,” Roberts shares, intimating how vital exposure is to capturing and retaining the hearts and minds of young engineers, scientists, and tech wizards.

What Roberts and Vickreys experiences have in common is one not unique to adolescence: confidence. Specifically a lack of it. By the time girls reach middle school, their participation in STEM courses begins to dwindle. By high school, they’re often the only women in their classrooms. Add in an extremely challenging subject matter (for both girls and boys) and social pressures to conform, and the effects can be demoralizing, sometimes even enough to convince many young engineers and techies to call it quits.

To solve this crisis in STEM confidence, Vickrey insists “we have to get younger,” explaining that we must reframe the conversation. Girls who are engaged in STEM pursuits tend to be highly creative and visual—two words that most people don’t associate with engineering, science, and math. “A career in a STEM field doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a computer scientist,” continues Vickrey. “Know what your passion is… and where your interests lie, and engage in those within a STEM discipline,” she advises. Design prosthetics for handicapped dogs. Make a computer game to help senior citizens keep their minds sharp. When you unite your passions with STEM, the possibilities are endless.
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Take Elise Whang, CEO and co-founder of SnobSwap.com. A highly-successful DC lawyer, Whang dove head first into the world of tech and engineering to make her idea for a onestop online boutique for shoppers seeking designer fashion items at bargain prices a reality. The learning curve was steep, she admits, but with grit and determination, Whang found her footing. Today she’s one of DC’s 40 Power Women and has been featured in TechCrunch, O Magazine, and The Washington Post.
girlsintech3“This is an exciting time to make a change and to foster the careers of women in tech [and] STEM,” says Whang. The path to engineering and tech success may be challenging for women for many reasons, but it’s important to continue elbowing for space at the table. Still, Whang believes these fields can be places “of opportunity, where there’s room for more women to grow their careers and become leaders and everyday role models. It’s a challenge but a good one to tackle.”

Girls like Gutierrez are tackling that challenge head on. This year, Gutierrez continues her STEM journey through Girls in Technology’s lauded mentor-protégée program. With a network of local support, there’s nothing stopping this future aerospace engineer.

 

* Christine Hauser, “Twitter’s Ill-Timed Frat Party,”The New York Times, July 22, 2015.
** Liana Christin Landivar, “Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin,” American Community Survey Reports, ACS-24, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, D.C., 2013.