Silicon Valley Needs Femgineers (she++)

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The co-chairs of she++ speak up about the first women in tech conference at Stanford.

By Ayna Agarwal & Ellora Israni (Co-Chairs, she++ Conference at Stanford University)

This Monday, the world’s largest social media giant made its most expensive acquisition in history when it purchased a 13-person startup – a startup that makes exactly $0 in sustainable revenue – for $1 billion. Doing the math, Facebook valued each of those 13 individuals at a mere $77 million, or each of Instagram’s 17 filters (yeah, we counted) at a hefty $59 million.

We are clearly in the midst of another tech bubble. And it would be difficult to argue that good old Facebook hasn’t been a major impetus for this growth. It’s the number one most visited website in the United States, the largest virtual network with 800 million users worldwide, and the only Silicon Valley startup featured in an Oscar-nominated movie.

In a conversation earlier this year, Stanford professor of Computer Science Eric Roberts challenged us to think back to 2010′s The Social Network, and to name the movie’s “universally good” characters. He argued that there were only two: Mark Zuckerberg’s college girlfriend Erica and his lawyer Marylin.

Roberts added an interesting insight: the only two “universally good” characters were women – Zuckerberg’s girlfriend Erica and lawyer Marilyn – and neither had any interest in technology and rather eschew it.

At a Stanford lecture last fall, Facebook’s founder personally credited the recent spike in computer science majors to the film, one in which the “female” and the “technical” stereotypes are mutually exclusive. Women likely took home an implicitly different message than the one that inspires them to take up this craft. If we want more women in technology, we need more role models who marry the two.

But before we get any further, let’s take a step back.

We have been told, time and time again, we need more women in technology. But we’re not entirely convinced. Is there really a difference? The greatest technology companies of our time – Apple, Google, Facebook – have been successfully founded and run by men. And they seem to be doing a pretty good job.

What exactly would a female technical head do differently for the iPhone or Google Search or Facebook Connect? We really have no idea why we need more women in technology.

Two years ago, the message that ‘we’, females, were needed in the industry didn’t resonate strongly enough to change our plans. We entered Stanford a couple of eager fresh(wo)men with aspirations in medicine and psychology. We wanted to experience everything Stanford had to offer, to embody the collegiate stereotype, and to make the world a better place. And we know what you’re thinking: yeah, right.

During our freshman year, we did not change the world. But, from educational toys to Karel the Robot, we did begin to experience the mystique of technology. We noticed male hallmates building sophisticated robots and the occasionally heard the guys next door discussing algorithms. But clichéd characterizations of predominantly male geeks persistently discouraged women such as ourselves from pursuing technical degrees. Between 2000 and 2009, there was a 79% drop in the number of first-year undergraduate women considering computer science, even as the social revolution began making technology (aka Facebook, Twitter, Angry Birds, etc.) ‘cool’ again.

Fast forward to December 2011 – We’d just finished our first quarter as sophomores and independently adopted technical majors. Intrigued by the introductory CS106A class we both took to fulfill a General Education Requirement and inspired by the experiences of guest lecturer and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and enamored by the glamorous appeal of “popular” CS (take, for example, The Social Network) we’d surprised our friends and families as a couple of good girls gone geeks.

Ellora is now a full-fledged Computer Science major, and Ayna is studying Human-Computer Interaction in Symbolic Systems – a conglomeration of computer science, philosophy, psychology, and linguistics. In a couple years we’ll graduate from Stanford as engineers. But we like to think of ourselves as a little more than that: we’re femgineers.

There’s a difference between the traditional computer scientist and the femgineer.

It has taken us two years to realize that Silicon Valley does not just need women in technology. It needs femgineers. Femgineers are not simply computer scientists.

We have not been coding all our lives, but we have had exciting experiences. The lack of a Y chromosome makes our visions unique and useful in the world of code. Femgineers are different because we value human indecision as much as deterministic Turing machines. We love people as much as we love computing.

We want to marry life and love and laughter with the most amazing technologies of our time, and that’s what makes us different. The first voice recognition system could not detect females because their voices differed so starkly from pitches of those on its engineering team. Car companies have come under fire for testing seatbelts against male dummies, but neglecting to detect the harm their lack of ubiquity was causing pregnant women and small children. Think of what a few more femgineers could do.

Since women comprise half the market for tech products, the future sustainability of technology demands the incorporation of women. After following smart, creative, and empowered women who are hard at work in hi-tech and shared a love for innovations, we were inspired.

Marissa Mayer abandoned her path to pediatric neurosurgery and bravely entered Google supremely because she “felt utterly unprepared to work at a search engine.” Silicon Valley’s unsung heroines galvanized us to explore our potential as femgineers.

That is exactly why we have founded and are co-chairing she++, Stanford’s first conference on women in technology. We have recruited speakers from Silicon Valley’s premier technology companies and support from around the Bay Area and put together a one-day symposium that will explore the barriers facing women in technology and the options to overcome them.

Through a series of blogs, polls, and videos, we hope to leverage the perspectives of each attendee during the day; from high school dreamer to revolutionary engineer, everyone has a story to share. The statistics define our motive, but the individuals give us meaning. We hope to show a generation of women that technology does not by definition exclude them by sharing the successes of femgineers today. We want Bay Area women to become the active catalysts behind the laptops and smartphones they rely on everyday – not just passive users.

While we may not change the world in our originally prescribed vision, with the tool of computer science, we are coding our own personal paths to change. We are optimistic about the future of women in technology; it’s just about optimizing the most effective algorithm to shape an environment conducive to femgineers.

Find out more about the she++ conference for women in technology which will take place April 21, 2012, on Stanford University’s campus.

These girls want to hear your story, feel free to email us at [email protected] or [email protected].

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest bloggers? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: Ayna Agarwal is a Co-Chair for she++, Stanford University’s first conference for women in technology. Ayna, hailing from Edison, NJ, is concentrating in Human- Computer Interaction within the Symbolic Systems major. She is also the Founder and Executive Director of a non-profit, SPOT Globally. Follow her on Twitter at @AynaAgarwal.

About the guest blogger: Ellora Israni is a Co-Chair for she++, Stanford University’s first conference for women in technology. Ellora, originally from Portola Valley, CA, is majoring in Computer Science. She also TAs for Stanford’s introductory CS class. Follow her on Twitter at @ElloraIsrani.