By Andrew Udeshi, Program Coordinator
I will never forget the perplexed looks on our fellows’ faces when they first saw me with a TechWomen sign at the arrivals hall in the San Francisco airport. They definitely did not expect a man to greet and welcome them to a program whose mission is to support women leaders in STEM.
TechWomen fellows – our program alumnae – and mentors are often among very few women (or the only woman) on their engineering, software teams or the like, and I can relate to their experiences, as the only male on the TechWomen team and one of few men at IIE’s San Francisco office. Hearing the fellows’ stories about male managers ignoring their suggestions, making inappropriate comments toward them and their lack of support in the workplace made me feel like an outsider sitting in on our events when I first joined in 2014. I felt the need to apologize on behalf of all those men who did not treat them with the respect they deserved. I couldn’t believe the challenges our fellows and mentors faced throughout their careers, ones that were never in my frame of reference, such as being ignored during meetings or being discriminated against because of gender.
A budding interest
Many boys and girls share the same interest when using technology at a young age. But the ability for girls to pursue STEM careers tends to diminish as they grow older due to a multitude of factors, including dissuasion from parents, limited resources, pressure to raise a family and lack of self-belief. It’s a shame that this enthusiasm for STEM tapers off for girls in their academic and professional careers. The men around these girls need to make more of an effort to encourage them to push on, despite what others might say, learn from their mistakes and overcome adversity. Our fellows frequently cite their fathers and brothers being positive influences on their STEM careers in their youth, and men have a key part to play in shifting this imbalance.
I saw firsthand this same level of excitement when I started a computer science lab in a rural village school in Sri Lanka. My students, aged 10-15, many of whom had never seen a computer before, were so eager to learn the basics of how to use one, how to type with both hands and use Microsoft Word. It was amazing for me to see the proverbial lightbulb go off when they typed their name for the first time or created a simple birthday card for their friends. Delegation trips are among my favorite components of TechWomen, because I get to work with children and see many more lightbulbs turn on. I also get to witness our fellows in their element, seeing themselves in the students they inspire, as they walk them through hardware and leadership workshops. I always return from these trips feeling hopeful that up-and-coming STEM graduates are in excellent hands with our fellows leading the way as their mentors and role models.
We are all better off when women are able to positively impact their families, communities and society at large. Men have an integral role to play in gender equality reform and need to be more active in the conversation. Our fellows have told me how appreciative they are of my involvement in TechWomen and this truly means a lot, knowing that I am able to play a small part in their journey, as they pave the way for the next generation and beyond.
TechWomen is a melting pot of highly qualified, motivated, remarkable women that have the power to inspire, not only girls and young women, but everyone in their wake. They are all able to
connect and support the same goal, regardless of religious beliefs, ethnic background and professional expertise. My hope is that more men will support them along their paths and join me and others in supporting campaigns, such as HeforShe, in making a permanent change in the fight for gender equality.
One of the reasons I took this job is that I believe in equal opportunity for education and career advancement and having the fair chance to pursue passions without hindrances. TechWomen fellows, participants and prospective participants share this vision, as seen through their initiatives to inspire and empower girls and young women. Over the last year and a half, my team and the TechWomen community have welcomed me to a point where it feels more normal to be the only man surrounded by women. Their open-minded attitude to my participation (I’m the first man to be on the TechWomen organizing team) made it much easier to feel accepted and valued.
Hopefully in the future, the puzzled looks will be just passing glances as more men get involved in promoting gender equality and respect.