Women in tech fields, especially, computer engineering and programming are a small group not because women are ‘bad’ at these things, but because they are a group that has not been championed in the industry. For computer scientists, men outnumber women three to one, with women making 96¢ to every $1 a male computer scientist makes. Celebrating ‘Ladies Who Code’ is a way to draw attention to the industry’s abysmal gender, diversity, and pay gaps and to encourage more women to become interested in engineering and programming. One of these intrepid ‘Ladies Who Code’ is Mejean Cline, a Software Engineer at Leidos, a contractor with NASA.
Mejean was, in her own words, “born a nerd.” Always trying to make sense of the world from an early age, she was never content with accepting reality as it is. As an 80s kid, this natural curiosity extended to computers. To learn how a computer worked, though, she had to learn the computer’s language. After getting her associate’s degree, Mejean got married and had kids, and the dream of a computer engineering degree was postponed. She eventually enrolled at the University of Houston and endeavored to work full-time, raise children, and go to school. To help ease the financial burden, Mejean worked for and received a scholarship funded by Dr. William A. Brookshire, a former UH student who understood the burden of being a student while working full-time. Unfortunately, the worst happened when Mejean was hit by a car and her husband, now the family’s sole provider, had to quit his job in order to care for Mejean and the family. In a month and a half, they were homeless and living in a Salvation Army Shelter. In the shelter, people would ask why she, a smart, talented woman, wasn’t going to school. This encouraged her to begin to share her story. Support poured in, the most significant being an investment into her college education that was enough to also support the family moving out of the shelter and into a home. Mejean worked hard, graduated, and, through the help of UH mentors, was able to secure a spot working for NASA in software programming.
Challenges for Ladies Who Code
The challenges faced by Mejean were particularly difficult, but all women, especially women of color, face challenges when entering into the computer science, engineering, or tech industries. Differences in pay, promotions, job retention, and respect in the workplace are all issues that women in tech face compared to their male colleagues. In a typical year, a man at the same level as a woman will receive $15,000 more in pay. These gaps are most noticeable in higher levels of management – only 25% of C-suite level executives are women, and of these, only 5% are women from a racial minority. Even though the percentage of female workforce in the tech industry has increased, up from being an 8% minority in 1970 to 28% in 2019, at the current rate, it will take 132 years for the economic gender gap in this sector to be closed. (Source)
The gender and diversity gap is not just bad for the women programmers being left out of the industry, either, but it is bad for the industry’s growth and innovation overall. According to a 2020 McKinsey report, diverse teams “perform better, hire better talent, have more engaged members, and retain workers better.” (Source) To keep pace with international innovation in the tech fields, it is in our best interest to work on closing these gaps.
Benefits of Coding for Women
Despite the challenges of being a ‘Lady Who Codes’, there remain many benefits. Learning programming and coding, no matter what stage in life you learn it, enhances problem-solving and critical thinking skills which are useful across the board. Empowering creativity and spurring innovation, learning coding opens up many avenues for women in the industry. Thanks to some attention paid to the topic of the gender gap, many employers are taking this into consideration when hiring, leading to greater job opportunities than ever before. Many women are also choosing to work for themselves, as the entrepreneurial options available are many and varied for those who know engineering and programming.
Don’t Be Afraid to Break Things
For those women entering into the world of engineering and software programming, Mejean has some advice – don’t be afraid to break things. Besides the barriers faced when simply entering into the industry, there is the problem, itself, of learning programming and coding. When building code, as when encountering the glass ceiling, you can’t be afraid to break things. Mejean says, “ So many things I have avoided trying because I was afraid of messing things up. When I first got here [NASA], I was afraid to speak in meetings and because of that, nobody knew who I was. I’m a talented programmer, but I was afraid to show people what I did.” When her manager encouraged her to speak up and to make mistakes, that was when the real innovation happened. Now, they “find new and inventive ways to break things” daily.
Resources and the Importance of Mentorship
For those who want to learn a coding language, there are many resources and tips on where to begin. There are free resources – for young people, for children, for women – aimed at the basics of coding. There are also paid resources like Skillshare, or community classes if going to college classes is not an option. MIT offers online coursework as part of its mission to bridge the gap between privileged income earners and the poor. Also, there are many online games in which writing lines of code is part of gameplay. In addition to learning resources, seek out human resources in the form of mentorship.
Mejean’s mentor paved the path for her to trailblaze her own. As he fought for her spot at the University of Houston and the Brookshire Foundation Program, Mejean hopes to pay it forward to make space and pave the way for more females in the industry. She says, “Mentorship can happen in many ways. Let me build your program. Let me build your website. Let me be a reference. I don’t think I’m a big deal, but people look at my resume and think, “That’s somebody.” And I can lend that to you. I can be that inside person for someone else.”
The future of women in tech is looking brighter every day. Mejean thinks that “Women’s role [in tech] will only grow. I was an outlier as a kid who wanted to take apart the toaster, but now the difference in young women interested in engineering and STEM in these graduating classes is amazing. Now kids are learning to code in elementary school.” But it’s important to promote diversity beyond the gender gap as well. “Promoting diversity means exposing kids of all income levels to opportunities. We keep the workforce looking like the reality of this country by making sure lower-income schools aren’t left out of our efforts.”
Mejean’s parting advice? “Just do it. Ask all the questions. Learn all the things. Walk boldly. Don’t be afraid to break things. Treat every opportunity and mistake as a way to better yourself.”