The nine women sitting at the table are world-class programmers and technologists, the kind of people directly responsible for RTP’s global reputation.
Deirdre Clarke is director of product management at Bandwidth, while Jeanne Hiesel and Janevieve Grabert are senior software engineers for TekSystems at BASF Plant Science and Reed Elsevier, respectively. Software technical sales business analyst Jane Bossert and senior IT architect Nicole Ann Hargrove are both with IBM, while Angie Jones is a consulting automation engineer with LexisNexis. Beth Kuehnert is a Web developer with NETE Solutions, Rachel Clark is an information developer with TechSmith Corporation and Kylie Geller is a software development intern at Republic Wireless.
Yet they’ve gathered at the Bandwidth office at N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus as volunteers. Clarke is the community leader for the North Carolina chapter of Pennsylvania-based TechGirlz, a nonprofit that organizes free events geared to get middle school girls interested in technology; the other women are her collaborators. They host events at their companies to get girls doing podcasting or building robots – and to dispel myths about technology jobs before the girls are old enough to decide it’s not the field for them.
“The tech field is very broad. It’s getting even broader,” says Hargrove. “We’re going to see women who maybe are not so hard core into programming or the traditional kind of technology. We’re going to see how the arts are going to be involved in a lot of the things we are doing.” So the aim of TechGirlz is to expose local girls to different facets of the tech field or to tech’s intersections with business, graphic design or medicine – since many fields, Grabert notes, require some degree of scripting.
There are other preconceptions to get past too: Tech isn’t as solitary a field as some girls think. Jones, who is also an adjunct professor at Durham Tech, knows her students tend to think there’s no collaboration or communication between programmers. It’s a field that requires creativity and problem-solving, Hargrove says, yet many girls simply don’t know it’s an option. In fact, as several of these women attest, the ratio of women in tech fields has fallen since the 1980s. In Hiesel’s three decades of professional experience, she’s seen the ratio fall from one out of four to one out of ten.
“I was a stay-at-home mom for 10 years before I went back to school and started my career. When I got out there, it was a lot of young men and I didn’t really have anyone to talk to or mentor me quite the same way as a woman would,” Kuehnert says. “I realized there was such a lack in diversity.” She’s noticed it in her son’s generation, too. He’s 14, and she laments that there are no girls in his peer group who play games or work on computers. Grabert did play computer games and write programs as a kid, she recalls, though no one encouraged her to apply her natural aptitude to computer science. She, like Jones, stumbled into it. For Jones, her first programming class was a revelation, and she changed majors.
“When you don’t see people who look like you, it’s kind of discouraging,” she says. “Oh, that field is for young nerdy guys is kind of the stereotype. But I’m not a young nerdy guy. I’m cool and hip and I’m a girl, you know?”
So it’s refreshing to dispel a few myths and give middle school girls a head start. Clarke likes to see how exciting the sessions are for these girls – their eyes light up, she says – while Bossert loves the focus they achieve in their huddles. Afterward, Clark has seen them exchange email addresses, and many of these girls attend more than one session. The hope is to catch these girls before they’ve made up their minds that tech is not right for them. Clarke remembers having these same conversations with her own daughter, who happens to be sitting several seats away.
“Ask Kylie right here how many times I told her when she was younger – I asked her, and she was like ‘No way. I am not hanging out with those nerdy boys,’” Clarke says.
“My high school had an AP computer science class, and I think there were only six or seven boys in it, and I was like, ‘no,’” Geller says of the small class, confirming her mom’s story. Yet today Geller is a junior at N.C. State, pursuing an engineering degree. And she works alongside her mom to dispel misconceptions about tech and bring the women-to-men ratio back up again. It’s not just a feel-good mission, either, but a practical one, Clarke says.
“What I like to harp on with people is why I like to do this and why I want more women in the field. For equality, yes, but it’s honestly to build better products,” she says. “People think differently. The more diverse team you have building a product, the better that product is going to be.”
Middle school-aged girls can register for the free sessions at techgirlz.org/raleigh-durham-techgirlz-group..
▪ Make a Website Using WordPress: Feb. 18 at NetApp (7301 Kit Creek Road, Durham)
▪ Building an App: March 8 at Spoonflower (2810-176 Meridian Parkway, Durham)
Info: Both classes are 6-8 p.m. No programming experience is necessary, but girls will need a Wifi-enabled computer with Windows, Linux or MacOS; a browser other than Internet Explorer; and a Google account.