I Am the Unicorn: A Young Woman of Color Prepares to Enter the Computer Science Workforce
During Najla’s time in computer science, she has seen that gender-based assumptions are alive and well. She is aware that some people think that women aren’t interested in computing because of “the assumption that when you go into computer science, you’re going to be sitting at a cubicle the whole time and coding. But really there are so many aspects of it — some that involve coding, but also involve other things.”
Najla was exposed to those other aspects early, thanks to an effort at Harvey Mudd College (highlighted in the forthcoming research report Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing) to expose all of its students to both the foundational building blocks of computer science and an accurate idea of the scope of the computer science field. “I liked being able to solve problems in different ways, the creativity involved in it,” Najla says. “I’ve always really liked languages, and learning computer science was for me like learning another language.”
As other women in science and engineering have said, interesting work isn’t the only thing that draws them to the field. Najla’s parents, who immigrated from Mexico and Egypt, recognized the opportunities for their daughter in STEM. “I think they saw STEM as the best way for me to become successful, and financially independent and stable,” says Najla. “They just really wanted me to be successful.”
Najla can’t separate her experiences in computer science from her status as a second-generation American and a woman of color. Race and gender shaped her four years at Harvey Mudd, and she knows the same will be true when she graduates in the spring and enters the larger world of technology.
Who is a good fit for computer science?
For Najla, concerns about identity intensified difficulties in the rigorous Harvey Mudd program. “I was comparing myself to other students, especially the students who already had experience with computer science and had been coding since they were in middle school,” she says. “And that’s kind of hard for me, not because I hadn’t been at an academically rigorous high school — I had been — but I always dealt with race and identity issues. When I came to Mudd, it was amplified because I started to think that maybe it was because of me. That my personality and my experience meant that I couldn’t do it, that I was too far behind to ever catch up with the people who already had experience with computer science.”
Women often enter college with less experience coding. And, like Najla, thinking that computer science is not a good fit for them or that coding is an innate skill can hold women back from entering, let alone succeeding in, the field. Encouraging students to look beyond the stereotypes of the field and develop a growth mindset is an important part of getting more students, especially young women, into engineering and technology.
Looking back, Najla thinks that she was too hard on herself. “Harvey Mudd is hard for everybody. I think I just didn’t communicate enough with other students to realize that they were having similar experiences to those I was having.”
“I was the unicorn.”
Being in computer science meant coming to terms with her identity. “I always tried to blend in,” says Najla. “That was one of my goals. I always wanted to be invisible. And then when I came to Mudd, I realized that I can’t be invisible. It’s been a process, and I’m still sort of struggling with my identity as a woman of color, but I’m at the point where I’m forcing myself to deal with it. And I’m learning more about it, which I think is really important.”
That process intensified in the workplace when she took an internship and “realized the tech industry really is white, cisgender male heavy,” she said. “So then I was in a situation where I couldn’t avoid thinking about it. I was there, and I was the unicorn, and there was no way that I was going to hide at all.” Najla says that an intense self-awareness interfered with her work and her learning for the first month of her internship. “I was worried that I would do something or say something that would encourage people to continue stereotyping women in the industry.”
Finally bringing up the issue with her co-workers and participating in a dialogue at work helped her to become a more secure and productive worker, and she thinks that dialogue is an important part of building an environment that is open to everyone.
“I would like to see an environment where everybody feels comfortable enough to talk about their problems and feel like their co-workers or their classmates will support them, no matter what those problems are. But that’s not easy.”
Being a part of change
Najla’s short term goal is to become a better software engineer. But she continues to educate herself on race, gender, and inclusivity in the workplace, and she hopes that her life will also include working toward progress in the industry.
“I would like to be a part of challenging what tech culture is and changing it so that it includes everybody,” she says. “And for this movement to become as successful as it can be, we need to start talking about intersectionality. Because the problem with grouping all women under one umbrella is that we forget that there are women of color, that there are transwomen, that there are transwomen of color, there are queer women, and there are all these kinds of women who don’t necessarily have the same experiences as white women.
“I don’t think it’s possible to talk about gender without talking about race, and vice-versa. The conversation needs to meld together, and we need to talk about different identities, different backgrounds, and different socioeconomic backgrounds.
“I want to show people that you can be whoever you want to be and still be able to succeed in the tech industry. But to be honest, I don’t even know if that’s true. I could have a terrible experience when I go into the tech industry. But for right now, I’m trying to be as much of myself as I can be. Just because I feel like I owe it to myself, and I think I owe it to other people to not hide anymore.”
This post was written by AAUW research intern Jean DeOrnellas.
Obviously not. But if we want to start seeing more women in computer science, we need to pay attention to what’s happening in high schools.
AAUW’s research report, Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing, features the latest data on girls’ achievement in subjects related to engineering and computing.
Being an African American woman in the technology field took on new meaning when it came time for Stephanie to support her family.