Despite the fact that women-led tech companies reportedly perform three times better than companies with male CEOs, the gender gap in STEM — science, technology, engineering, & mathematics — persists. As Observer reported just last June, women only own 5 percent of tech startups; only 7 percent of partners at the top 100 venture capitalist firms are women; and women hold only 11 percent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies. And for those women who are working in tech, there’s a wage gap that even Google isn’t properly addressing. Women in tech receive lower salary offers than men for the same job at the same company 63 percent of the time, and for women in tech under 25, average earnings are 29 percent lower than those of their male cohorts. This lack of women in tech can’t be explained by an inherent disinterest in math and science, either, because statistics show that 74 percent of young girls express interest in STEM. Clearly, young girls are being deterred from pursuing STEM subjects, and that has to stop.
As the World Economic Forum (WEF) reported back in March, “Girls are rarely encouraged to study math or science, and often internalize beliefs that boys are simply better in these fields.” According to WEF, even when elementary school girls outperform their male classmates in math and science, this difference usually disappears by junior high. Women at American universities earn only 35 percent of undergraduate degrees in STEM fields, and as of 2015, there were fewer women in computer science than there were in 1991. Further, multiple studies have shown that both men and women are more likely to hire male applicants for jobs involving math and science, even when their application materials are identical to those of female applicants. And for women and girls of color, racial biases in STEM present added challenges.
As disheartening as all of this is, it could be even worse. Over the past few months, I’ve gotten to speak with some awesome women who are advocating for diversity in STEM fields. These conversations have absolutely given me hope about the future of women in STEM, but more importantly, they've given me hope for the future of all underrepresented groups in STEM. Here are eight women in STEM who are changing the game.
"I think for me, really, one of the key motivators for founding Black Girls Code was that my daughter Kai had a totally different experience growing up than I did," Kimberly Bryant, founder and CEO of Black Girls Code, tells Bustle. Bryant's been working since 2011 to increase the number of women of color in STEM fields — and she's doing so by educating and empowering young girls and teenagers of color through exposure to computer science and technology.
Even though the Vanderbilt graduate wears so many proverbial STEM hats, Bryant wasn't always interested in pursuing STEM subjects. "I just kind of fell into it. It wasn’t necessarily something that I always perceived as a lifelong goal," Bryant tells Bustle. Still, it wasn't until her daughter showed an interest in video games that Bryant realized just how little women and girls of color are actively encouraged to pursue educations and careers in STEM subjects — particularly technology. "I saw that girls, young girls of color especially, but just girls in general, weren’t being exposed to this as a career path," Bryant says. "They weren’t seeing [tech] in a more ownership fashion, in a way where they could be creative with it, and I think that’s the big issue.”
Bryant says she feels like community is everything when you're pursuing a challenging goal, so she wanted to create a safe space where girls and women of color could empower each other. "Community is important," Bryant says. "So creating those opportunities for a community to form, and really creating these communities where women and girls can connect around these shared interests and these shared passions, is one key way for us to kind of change the dynamics of the industry."
Bryant believes diverse representation in media is another way we'll change the dynamics of the industry. It's actually part of the reason she chose to act as an advisor to the YouTube Red original series Hyperlinked — which is based on the true story of five tweenage girls who created a website by girls, for girls. "That’s what we say within Black Girls Code," Bryant tells Bustle. "You can create something even more significant when you have a diversity of voices at the table, so it’s good to see this reflected in media."
Grace Francisco has been working in STEM since the '90s. Francisco held six different positions during her time at Microsoft, and she co-founded the group Women At Microsoft in Silicon Valley as well. Currently, Francisco is the Vice President of Developer Relations at Roblox, where her primary goal is to engage and empower "emerging developers" — Francisco's name for kids who want to learn how to produce video games. "I think it’s a really interesting opportunity for us to tap into that audience and show them that they can be developers," Francisco says. "Unlocking a diverse community of developers means you’re unlocking a powerful developer community ... who will help solve really massive problems that we need to be able to deal with." Roblox hosts over 29 million games created by users, making it the largest user-generated platform out there.
When we spoke last July, Francisco told me there was never a time when she wasn't interested in tech, and she's been interested in STEM for as long as she can remember. "I loved math and science. When home PCs became available, I was [always] sitting in front of a green screen. My first video game was a tech space game ... I fell in love with it."
Unlike her love of all things tech, Francisco says her drive to advocate for diversity in STEM didn't show up until after she got married and was expecting her first child. "I was at Microsoft at the time, and it felt like everyone was coming out of the woodwork giving me advice on what to do with my career, most of which was: ‘You are going to quit your job, right? It was a very strange experience, because no one asked my husband if he was even going to take one day off after the birth of our child."
Since then, Francisco has been advocating for diversity in STEM. Francisco's also passionate about changing the ways in which women are represented in video games, but she doesn't only focus on gender-related diversity issues in STEM. "I feel strongly about the need to not just advocate for women in tech, but there’s this broader segment of underrepresented diversity groups that also need a voice," Francisco tells Bustle. "I think it’s important that we all work as a community together to try to drive change and be supportive of each other.”
Alex LeViness graduated with a degree in physics and mathematics from The University of Alabama last spring, and she's currently doing research on a Fulbright scholarship in Germany. When she returns, she'll be pursuing a PhD in plasma physics to work on nuclear fusion. And it's kind of all because she got to transition out of traditional high school and enroll in Ohio Connections Academy — a free online charter school in Ohio for K-12 students. "I actually was more of a literature kid growing up. I was a bookworm. I thought I was going to be a writer when I was older," LeViness says. "I didn’t even consider going into STEM until I started attending school from home."
LeViness says her dad was influential in her choice to pursue STEM also. "I would come up to him and say, ‘Hey, do you think time travel is possible?’ And like two hours later, we’d be talking about antimatter, string theory, or something like that.”
LeViness says her father went to great lengths to raise her and her brother the same way, and although she's often felt out of place in STEM classes, she hasn't personally experienced much discrimination. She's still aware of gender bias in the field, though. "I’ve had a couple female scientists in the groups I’ve worked with ... but no one that I worked for directly. I’ve also never taken a physics class taught by a woman. And I’ve only had one math class that was taught by a woman."
LeViness says her advice to any women or girls who want to pursue careers and education in STEM would be to follow what interests you. "Don’t let the fact that it’s not taught very well in our schools take that away from you," LeViness says. "And don’t feel like you don’t belong there if you’re not the same as everyone else.”
TeLisa Daughtry is the founder of FlyTechnista — a New York-based online community for women and girls in tech — but the self-taught developer and entrepreneur actually started her tech career in the music industry. Daughtry says she did a lot of work around motion graphics, video editing, and site-building for artists and music labels, simply because companies were willing to pay her for it. "People assumed that was my career, but it really wasn’t. It was just that I’d found a way to use technology in music to enter [into tech], and that was pretty much the only industry that was hiring me for my technical skills," Daughtry tells Busstle.
Daughtry says she pursued tech through creative avenues largely because she found more diversity represented there — especially compared to the white-maleness of Silicon Valley, where she spent some time working after completing graduate school in Boston. "After being there, I realized that this isn't just not a place for women, but not a place for people of color, not a place for anyone that wasn’t a white man."
It was after Daughtry left the west coast and moved back to New York City that the idea for FlyTechnista started to form. Daughtry says she'd started to see all these resources and scholarships pop up for women in tech, and for some reason, she sort of became the liaison between these opportunities and everyone in her tribe. "I came into tech at a time where there wasn’t a meet-up, there wasn’t any organizations for women and girls, there was nothing. I didn’t have a mentor, I didn’t know where to look — I just really didn’t know," Daughtry says. "That’s pretty much why I built it, because I realized that there’s not a centralized place where all of this information exists."
Mylene Paquin & Kayte Torreão da Costa
Mylene Paquin and Kayte Torreão da Costa have combined, tech, art, entrepreneurship, perfume, and social good to create DIVONA — a nonprofit perfume company that supports survivors of domestic abuse and women who are rebuilding their lives after surviving human trafficking. Paquin says working with perfume has been a lifelong dream of hers, but entrepreneurship was something she feared for a long time. "I was interested in it, but I was terrified of even stepping foot into that world. I just knew from a young age I really wanted to do perfume." Paquin says she found herself stuck in a cycle of abusive relationships for years, and it wasn't until she started dating her now-fiancé that she started to seriously consider entrepreneurship. "With the right partner, entrepreneurship is not something to be afraid of, because you balance each other," Paquin says.
Torreão da Costa says she's known for a long time that she wanted to be an entrepreneur, but she spent the first 10 years of her career working for corporations. "Ever since I was in college, I knew that I wanted to do more than just push the button in corporate America. In entrepreneurship you can do anything you want to do ... granted, there are some things that should be sectioned off to other partners, and that’s why it’s good to have a cofounder."
Paquin says her personal experience with abuse was a major reason she wanted to find a way to give back to women in need, but it was more than that. "Social enterprises are really key now. I think everyone should, in some way, be giving back."
Torreão da Costa says she was thrilled with DIVONA's mission simply because helping trafficking survivors is the right thing to do. "I didn’t have a lot of personal experiences that directly impacted the reason why I was so ecstatic about the company having a social impact component, but I believe that’s the way the world is going,” Torreão da Costa says. “Not only that, we’re part of the millennial generation where it just makes sense that it’s not just up to nonprofits to make a difference, but it’s also up to profits to make that difference as well.”
In addition to being a TED Fellow, Anab Jain is a designer, futurist, filmmaker, and writer who's been working with emerging technologies and complex futures for over 15 years now. Much of her work involves creating hypothetical futures in which she's able to study what the future of technology might look like, and how humans will coexist within that framework. Jain's the co-founder of the vanguard laboratory, design, and film studio Superflux, which she created with her husband. Jain says she and her husband were already doing a lot of collaborations when they co-founded Superflux back in 2009, so it just made sense to start a studio. "Initially it was a lot of passion ... both of us are also artists, and so we also like to do a lot of our own projects. I think [Superflux] just kind of emerged into this practice, as it is today, after a lot of different explorations.”
Jain is the recipient of multiple awards in design and innovation, and her work has been exhibited at places like MoMA New York and Science Gallery Dublin — but she wasn't always sold on pursuing a career in design. "I come from a family of architects, but I was interested in medicine so I was kind of not sure if I should go for the science stuff or design." Jain says she ended up starting design school earlier than medical school because it had a different curriculum and dates. "So I suppose I didn’t really make a conscious decision to do something in STEM, it was just something that I was always kind of surrounded by."
Jain says being a woman in the male-dominated tech industry does come with a certain lack of fairness, though. "I’ve always felt like I have to put in double the effort." Even so, the optimist in Jain sees a much more equal and inclusive future for STEM. "I think the future is a lot more diverse, it’s a lot more transgender, it’s a lot more ambiguous."
In the meantime, Jain says her best advice to women and girls who want to pursue educations and careers in STEM is to be stubborn. "Be stubborn and thick-skinned," Jain says. "Because I think even if you’re passionate, and even if you’re really good at what you do, I think you are likely to be subject to preconceived notions of who can do what."
As the president of Miss Ross Inc., and the founder of Trans Tech Social Enterprises — a program that enables LGBTQ+ people to lift themselves out of poverty through technical training — it’s not surprising that Angelica Ross has always been drawn to tech. "I was the one who would have to hook up everything, install the computers, or you know, just whatever was tech-related, just because I was so intrigued by it,” Ross tells Bustle. What is surprising, however, is that someone as focused as Ross still has time for show business. Ross co-stars in the Emmy-nominated dramedy Her Story, she's on the current seasons of Claws, she was the executive producer for Missed Connections, and she’s playing the Mayor in Amazon’s animated series, Danger and Eggs. Oh, and she was recently awarded the GLAAD Media Award for her trans advocacy work on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
Ross chatted with Bustle about everything from what it means to be a trans woman of color in STEM to how she stays empowered in Donald Trump’s America. “I would say all the things are true about what we observe in the field right now, but those are all really just reflections showing us what we are capable of being better than,” Ross says. “It looks like Donald Trump is powerful, or it looks like this obstacle or mountain is so high, but someone is Martin Luther King, someone is Malcolm X, someone is Steve Jobs, and they just have to realize it."
When I asked Ross if she had any advice for other women and girls in STEM who might be struggling to “realize it” for themselves, she said it’s all about figuring out what inspires you to learn. “Just because these other avenues aren’t speaking to you doesn’t mean that you can’t be wildly successful in some unconventional way," Ross says.