It's Tough Being a Woman in Tech. CoderGirl's Mentors Hope to Change Just That 

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click to enlarge Ashwina Dodhyani, a business systems analyst, mentors CoderGirl participants because "I want them to feel empowered." - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • Ashwina Dodhyani, a business systems analyst, mentors CoderGirl participants because "I want them to feel empowered."

When she was a young girl in India, Ashwina Dodhyani had her mind set on becoming a fashion designer. Her family — who viewed doctors, lawyers and engineers among the only truly worthy occupations, she says — had other plans.

"My brother pushed me to take computer science as a major in college because I was really good at math and had good analytical skills," Dodhyani says. "You know, it was hard, if I'm being honest. But it was four years and then I thought, no I don't hate this; this is what I want to do for my career."

Today, Dodhyani is a business systems analyst for a technology integrator in St. Louis, as well as a mentor with the CoderGirl program. She recalls that she later took her brother's advice again, applying to graduate schools and ultimately moving to the U.S. to continues her computer science studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"I think that was when I got really interested in computer science, because it was more practical. My undergrad wasn't like that; it was a lot of theory and I definitely did not enjoy that as much," Dodhyani says.

But Dodhyani is an outlier; many other women are pushed away from tech interests even before they realize it's happening. No matter if it's kids making fun of geeky pursuits or adults steering women toward careers that are perceived as more "feminine," there's a notion that something is "wrong" with a young woman with interest or aptitude in programming or mathematics.

One CoderGirl mentor — who asked not to be identified out of fear that her employer would retaliate — says that girls often cannot fathom pursuing an occupation in computer science.

"Whether it's young girls or women, there's a lot of fear. They feel like they can't do it or they don't have the right aptitude for it," says the mentor, who is an analyst for a large technology company in St. Louis. "I think they see it as, 'Oh, boys play with computers, boys play with electronics, so they're made for that and we're not made for that.'"

Even after growing up in an encouraging environment and securing a professional coding job while in college, young women still deal with outside skepticism about their interests and capabilities. CoderGirl mentor Jenny Brown says that her "Hogwarts for hackers" boarding school in Illinois nurtured her talents for working on software and servers and fully prepared her for college courses to become a software engineer. Unfortunately, not everybody saw that.

"I encountered a hardcore engineering program that was strongly biased against women. And it was typical that I would sit in a lecture with 300 men and one other woman," says Brown, who now is a software engineer at a data-driven agricultural company in St. Louis.

click to enlarge "It's a joy to see them light up with ideas, questions and confidence," engineer Jenny Brown says of the women she mentors through CoderGirl. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • "It's a joy to see them light up with ideas, questions and confidence," engineer Jenny Brown says of the women she mentors through CoderGirl.

Brown remembers asking a male teaching assistant to clarify some class requirements. The aide became defensive, she says, responding with, "If you have to ask questions, maybe this isn't the right place for you."

"It wasn't until later that I had realized he had written the assignment. But when I was seventeen and all I needed was clarification so I could go keep working, that was very discouraging," Brown says. "At the same time, I was already a professional software engineer working a part-time job outside of school. He had no idea that I'd already been programming for over fifteen years."

Men doubting women's abilities doesn't stop at graduation, the CoderGirl mentors say.

Brown says that with each new tech job, men have assumed that she knew less than she actually did, so she was forced to prove herself again and again, unlike her male counterparts making the same job leap.

"They challenged my decisions, questioned my reasoning for things, made me explain myself more, gave me smaller projects to start with instead of trusting me with the big stuff," she says. "They were generally just less trustful; I don't think they even realized it. I think it was so automatic, so unconscious, that they just assumed they were accurately judging me."

Meanwhile, the anonymous CoderGirl mentor says that she's faced contradictory assumptions and demands.

"When I first started out in my career, I got feedback saying I'm not assertive enough. At the time, it was probably my first year or second year of working. When I would go to meetings, I didn't think that I had enough yet to contribute, so I would just try to soak everything in and learn as much as I could," the mentor says. "But when I got more knowledge and I was more confident, I got that I 'talk too much.'"

"This is something that I heard through a third person: 'She's too passionate.' I was like 'Make up your mind, do you want me to be assertive or not?'" the analyst continues. "I just don't let it bother me. If I know I'm doing the right thing, then I'm going to keep doing it. If people don't like it, so be it."

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