3 Tech-Focused Women Who Rose to the Top

Editor’s Note: Our customers are increasingly interested in the need for a greater educational focus on the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As a technology company, we at Verizon want to make sure our customers are empowered with the latest information and tools to motivate students to get interested in STEM fields, with programs like our Innovation App Challenge.

In this series, we’ll take an in-depth look at how mobile innovations are inspiring young people to embrace STEM, with a special focus on much-needed diversity in these fields.

The results are in: all around the world, girls under 15 consistently outperform boys in areas like math and science. Despite that academic head start, however, the ranks of women who go on to work in technical fields thins dramatically. Only 26 percent of the computing workforce is made up of women, and only 7 percent of venture capital funding goes to startups with women at the helm. Statistics show the gender gap is real.

Here, we spoke with three successful women working in the tech industry. Their stories reveal some of the forces behind the imbalance, and shed light on what a more equal future may look like.

SAMANTHA JOHN – Co-founder and CTO at Hopscotch Technologies

Growing up, Hopscotch co-founder Samantha John never felt like her interest in math and science made her a minority. “It was only when I went to college that I realized how few women were in my engineering courses,” she says.

When the Columbia University engineering grad met Jocelyn Leavitt, the two bonded over a shared concern about women’s underrepresentation in tech. “Both Jocelyn and I felt like we had come into tech careers later than a lot of guys who had started programming at age 11 or 12, usually because of their interest in video games,” says John. “We wondered: why wasn’t there a toy like that for girls that could have gotten us into programming? So we set out to create it.”

The idea became HopScotch, an app that teaches coding through games. It’s an approach that is accessible to kids, and young girls in particular.

“There’s nothing gendered about programming,” says John. “But we spent a lot of time making sure that all the art and design of the app was very gender-neutral and was not a turn-off to girls as many beginner programming things can be.”

She’s heard from girls around the world who have had their interest in technology sparked by the program. They come together through Hopscotch’s community forums to discuss problems and post encouragement for others’ projects. “Once programming becomes accessible, it becomes this new creative medium they’ve never had before,” says John. “And when they start college, they won’t be behind the boys.”

ANNEKE JONG – VP of Operations and Marketing at Reserve

As the VP of Operations and Marketing at the restaurant app Reserve, Anneke Jong refers to herself as “tech-adjacent.” Still, years of working at startups have given her a crash course in technology through osmosis. As she puts it, “I know enough to be dangerous.”

Jong graduated from Stanford Business School in the midst of the tech boom and found herself drawn to the fast-paced companies and products that were changing the world. “It was the early days of social media, and that was opening a new world to me.” But getting started as a woman in Silicon Valley had its obstacles.

“It’s a case of ‘You can’t be what you can’t see,’” recalls Jong.  “When I was in grad school, there were very few high-profile female role models. It felt like Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer and Meg Whitman were the only women in tech.”

Now she believes that list of mentors has expanded. Jong credits organizations like The Li.st – a networking group for professional women in tech – with helping create a larger community of mentors.

When you look at most tech companies, says Jong, a gender divide is evident. “You’ll have your technology and product teams that are primarily males and your marketing and operations teams [that] are mostly female.” If the divide gets too wide, she says, there is the risk of creating a fractured workforce. “In a company, you don’t want to end up with a boys’ team and a girls’ team.”

To Jong, as more girls look up to a wider variety of female role models – both on the business and technical side – the roles in tech companies will become less segregated. “I’m embarrassed to say that until I was in college I thought an engineer was someone who drove a train,” she says.  “I think this current generation of girls is different. We’re going to see a huge difference in the way the way they go into higher education and what kind of work they decide to do. I’m extremely optimistic.”

SHIVANGI CHAUDHAR – Senior Software Engineer at Zozi

When Shivangi Chaudhar left India to come to America and pursue her master’s in computer science, her family and friends were worried.  There was the concern that her chosen field was a “guy thing.” There were also other pressures.

“Where I’m from there is still often this idea that marriage is the be-all end-all,” says Chaudhar. “For a girl to leave to pursue her career at age 25 had some people I knew freaking out.”

Chaudhar stuck to her plan and earned her master’s degree. Now as a senior software engineer at San Francisco-based travel startup Zozi, she’s able to see tech’s gender divide from two cultural perspectives.

“I believe my gender matters a little bit less in America than it would in India,” she says. But, she admits, “it can be hard to be a woman in tech.” One of the most common difficulties she sees women experience is the confidence gap. Male engineers are often quicker to speak up, louder and more forceful in meetings. With only one or two women on an average engineering team, it’s easy to feel overpowered.

“Sometimes I’ve wanted to say something but I knew I wasn’t going to be as loud and assertive as the guys,” says Chaudhar. “If you can’t speak up, you’re not going to be heard.” She hopes the next generation of women will have an easier time finding their voice. “You have to have conviction and you have to prove yourself,” she says. “You have to scream: I’m a girl, I know myself and yes I can do it as well as you can.”

More stories in this series:

· Verizon Recognizes Rice Middle School Students for Innovative App Challenge Win

· New Technology Turns Smartphones Into Microscopes

· Tips from a Pro: Hispanic App Developer on How to Become a Successful Coder