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Women in STEM: Overcoming the Many Challenges

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Women in STEM: Overcoming the Many Challenges

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 When it comes to equal earnings, men and women programmers are paid the same salaries their first year out of college. The same is true of women who go into engineering, mathematics, and physical sciences.  That said, only 19 percent of computer science majors are female, and women comprise only one-fifth of the programming workforce. Why?

This summer Kelly Freed will graduate from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, with a degree in computer science. Last summer, she interned at Microsoft as a Program Manager, and in 5 months she’ll return to work, full-time, on the Bing Relevance team. We talked to Kelly about her experience as a female STEM student and her goals for the future. Kelly’s story sheds some light on the unique opportunity women have today and how they can seize it. 

When did you become interested in math and computer science?

Since I was a little kid, I’ve been interested and excited by this stuff. My dad went to engineering school for two years and always tried to explain things to me and my sisters. It was never like, “this isn’t for girls.” Maybe he would’ve saved these lessons for sons if he’d had any but he got three girls instead.

When did you narrow in on computer science?                                                                                                               

When I was in high school, I took computer science electives. That’s how I got to know about the subject. It combined all the things I was interested in, and I liked being able to see the output of my efforts. A lot of students who go into computer science might’ve also considered engineering. There’s a lot of overlap but computer science can be more abstract in ways.

Do you think college is too late to be exposed to STEM subjects like computer science for the first time?

Not at all. Some of the best programmers I know started in college.

Should students be introduced as early as high school? Should STEM courses be built into the general curriculum?

“Rather than weeding out students, Harvey Mudd College designed their intro computer science courses to encourage those new to the field to stick with it”

Yeah, the earlier, the better really. Have you heard what’s happening at Harvey Mudd College? They designed their intro computer science course to be more approachable. So rather than weeding out students, it encourages those new to the field to stick with it. As a result, I think something like 50 percent of the school’s computer science graduates are female—that’s way above the average.

Have you experienced gender discrimination at school? In the workplace?

In the workplace, no. At school … yes. My freshman year I was in an advanced placement class. Out of 15 students, there were only 2 girls (myself included). My male classmates would criticize me for not knowing something and make me feel stupid. I later realized that they were more forgiving of their fellow male classmates and even helped each other out. A lot.

Later on, I also TA-ed a class with a boy a year older than me. Students would approach him and ask if I really knew what I was talking about or ask inappropriate questions about if we were romantically involved (which we weren’t). He defended me saying that I knew more than he did on the subject and that we just worked together.

Why do you think school has been different from the workplace?

Honestly, I think it’s just a maturity thing. There are a lot of nerdy kids that go into these fields but, like all kids, they’re self-conscious and trying to be cool.

Do you foresee yourself having to make sacrifices in your personal life because of your career (or vice versa)? Are women expected to make more sacrifices than men?

I think this struggle exists in all fields on a certain level, but a lot of it is in our heads. Like saying that men can have it all and women can’t—I think for most people it’s possible to have everything but that’s not the same as saying you can physically do everything. I think that’s true for both men and women, but I don’t really know—I haven’t tried yet!

What was it like being a female intern at Microsoft?

“Work life balance is like a state of flux, sometimes it’s tipped in one direction and other times, the opposite.”

It was great. As female interns, we were invited to lunch talks, organized by the women’s board. A lot of the discussions focused on career-life balance, and that’s when I learned it was possible (to have both, a career and a family, that is). I remember one woman talking about work life balance as a state of flux, like sometimes it’s tipped in one direction and then other times, the opposite. She said when her kids were really young, her family had to come first. Then when they started school, she all of a sudden had much more time, and the balance started to tip more toward work.

How did you end up at Microsoft?

I met with Microsoft at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference. It’s a huge conference that happens once a year, all over the country, and it’s just for women. It’s kind of like a big career fair with really great resources and speakers.

We want to hear from you

That’s Kelly’s story—now, we want to hear yours. Are you a woman in a STEM career? Let us know in the comments or hit us up on Twitter: @MSFT4Work!

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  • What does "STEM" stand for?

  • Hello, STEM stands for Science Technology Education and Math! Essential to the future of business don't you think?