Last week, Fortune published a piece by one of our very own, Lea Coligado, Class of '16. Coligado wrote a personal account of life as a female CS Major at Stanford, and the story was a hit. Her blog Women of Silicon Valley immediately doubled in hits, and fans of Fortune tuned into her glance on life from all over the world, fascinated.
But it was not her entire perspective. Fortune editors left out portions of her original piece, in effect leaving out some of the optimism Coligado had for the progress of The Silicon Valley. As the heartbeat of Stanford, PULSE honors all Stanford perspectives in their loudest, fullest form. Below is Lea's version of the story, how she lived it and how she likes it on the page.
Feel free to check out Women of Silicon Valley and their Facebook Page!
Fat growth, dresses, and my high-pitched voice: on being a young woman on the threshold of the tech industry
For many women in tech, reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg is a sort of coming-of-age ritual, a confirmation of all the challenges we’ve faced and a manual for those to come. It’s a book stocked with social wisdom, and what stuck with me most was the value of “fat growth”—that is, the importance of making decisions based on their growth potential, not their stability.
Since reading Lean In, I’ve tried to subscribe to this growth-centric mindset. And looking back on my past two years as a programmer, I realize Computer Science has been one of the biggest testaments (and tests) to that philosophy.
To give some background, I’m a junior majoring in Computer Science, and a very involved one at that. When I’m not alternating between catching up on lost sleep and chugging espresso, I’m coding up assignments for CS classes, designing prototypes for other CS classes, or fundraising for Girls Teaching Girls to Code. So you could say Computer Science has deeply impacted my life, if not entirely taken it over. And it’s a fact in which I don’t lament, but take immense pride.
To be sure, when I first came to Stanford, Computer Science was the last thing on my mind. I hail from a long line of doctors so naturally I was pre-med from the womb. On top of that, I had two years of high school experience being the only girl in an AP Computer Science course of 20 dudes—and I had no intention of prolonging the sausagefest. I signed into Stanford as an intended Biology major, enrolling in CS106A only through peer pressure.
I loved CS106A so much I ended up taking a CS course every quarter my freshman year, and the rest is history. But like any relationship, my marriage to Computer Science has been one of fluctuation, and after every honeymoon comes strife.
As I progressed down the track, I watched the number of girls in my CS classes slowly dwindle, to the point I could count 20 girls in a 100-person class on a good day (and two of them would just turn out to be men with long hair). I began noticing all the red flags of sexism, something I’d always thought to be scary media folklore.
Over the past two years, I’ve seen the red flags manifested into negative, almost comically sexist behavior. I’ve been told that “girls don’t code because they’re, you know, artsier”; I’ve had middle-aged coworkers GChat me pickup lines (that aren’t even clever) to the point I’d avoid certain portions of the office altogether; I’ve had freelance recruiters offer me job opportunities then instead follow up with romantic proposals; and I’ve been cornered by a stranger at night outside Gates Building when leaving office hours.
While these examples may seem incredible for their blatancy, the hardest discrimination I’ve had to deal with is unconscious bias.
I can easily contest outrageously sexist comments or harassment with large bystander support. But it’s much harder to call out people for their subtle prejudices. In particular, unconscious bias has raised problems in aspects of my life I couldn’t have expected: my dresses and my voice.
I love dresses, for reasons both practical and personal: 1) they make it seem like I tried and 2) complete inter-leg freedom. In fact I love fashion in general, and every time “Hollaback Girl” comes on the radio I pray to the goddess of quasi-Harajuku style that is Gwen Stefani. But dresses and kimonos stand out in a sea of techie uniforms—jeans and free tech company t-shirts—and I wasn’t the only one who noticed.
I got better feedback from interviewers when I “looked the part,” so on days I had on-campus interviews I sacrificed my dresses for boxy company t-shirts. Even when I did wear company t-shirts I was sometimes assumed to be a recruiter in the same way women in scrubs are assumed to be nurses. Worst of all, a 50-year-old male coworker (married with kids) would regularly make it a point in passing to smirkishly comment on how “fun” my dresses looked. Thus was sucked the enjoyment from wearing dresses and on were the pants.
On top of dresses, my high-pitched voice became an unexpected source of frustration as team meetings became small battlegrounds for respect. Management listened noticeably more to what my male counterparts had to say although I was offering insightful feedback. They checked in on the status our projects with the dudes, although I was touching all the same files. And they praised them more on their progress, although I was pushing the same amount of code.
The worst thing was that part of me could actually see and hear why I was getting less attention: not only was my stature less commanding against my taller colleagues, my high-pitched voice even sounded less authoritative. I wondered internally if a second puberty, black magic, anything was possible to lower my voice just a notch.
My once solid marriage to Computer Science was suddenly on the rocks.
I craved being told I was “smart” with the same desire I wanted being “pretty” in junior high. I felt like an imposter in the most literal sense, wearing clothes that were abhorrent to my taste and lowering my voice at meetings like a pubescent boy trying to impress the ladies. It was not a good feeling. And it exacerbated the guilt many of my female classmates and I already experienced as part of imposter syndrome.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved (and still love) Computer Science, but not for the code itself; I love the applicability. This fact caused me guilt in the face of a widespread definition of “passion” for CS that entails either pedagogic expertise or spending Friday nights coding in the basement.
And if my passion were not questioned enough, my achievement was. I’d occasionally hear, “Oh you’re a woman, you’ll get a job at Google or Facebook just fine!” — which in actuality, I should have retorted, is rather discouraging encouragement. If I did get the internship, it was because I was a woman and if I didn’t, I’d just failed to leverage my upper edge.
So I felt guilty for spending my Friday nights out with friends, I felt guilty for having a “female advantage,” and I felt guilty for dressing the part.
Thankfully, the same field that has forced me into contact with people who spew gold the likes of “Girls only care about having babies!” has also brought wonderful female (and male) engineers, entrepreneurs and executives into my life. When I was frustrated about my reception at team meetings, I turned to Bluebird Art founder, Min Liu, and she advised me to “cut the weeds and water the flowers.” When I felt like a minnow in the shark tank that is software recruiting, Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou advised me to research a little bit into a lot of different technologies to establish my technical fluency.
The supportive men in my life also encouraged me to be heard. My Facebook mentor Jason Prado encouraged me to make big design decisions in our iOS app. Classmates John Yang-Sammataro, Rotimi Opeke, and Ashwin Sreenivas encouraged me to reach out to people I’d previously thought unreachable. And of course, my dad has been rooting for me from the start.
Because of these awesome people, institutions are becoming incubators of support in themselves. Stanford has a number of organizations for women and minorities in engineering, including Girls Teaching Girls to Code, she++, Society of Black Scientists and Engineers, and the Society of Latino Engineers. Forward-thinking companies like Facebook and Google have started programs geared toward the underrepresented in tech, (and I have Facebook University to thank for igniting my love for industrial programming.)
Which brings me back to “fat growth.” I believe Computer Science has the biggest potential for growth because besides the fact it’s going to make all important things in the future, it has the largest critical mass of extremely smart, extremely driven, extremely progressive people. And in the same way they’ve helped me develop better software, these people have helped me better develop my identity as a woman in tech.
Because of Computer Science, I’ve learned to see my dresses and high-pitched voice not as hurdles to my success, but as symbols of the perspective I bring to the table. I’ve learned there is often innocence behind the demeaning comments I receive. And most of all, I’ve learned how to deal with all types of people, not just men, as all my experiences have served to refine my outlook on interpersonal dynamics as a whole.
It’s still way too hard to wear dresses or have a high-pitched voice in Silicon Valley. But I see in the gender gap a space to fill with my unique perspective, the opportunity to inject my opinions and desires into the engineering process. And in an industry where a single line of code can touch billions of people, I see the opportunity to maximize my perspective at a scale no other industry can offer.
By: Lea Coligado