Women in Tech: Lea Coligado discusses women in Computer Science and her Fortune article

March 10, 2015, 10:37 p.m.

As a computer science major at Stanford, Lea Coligado ’16 noticed that the number of women in her Computer Science classes was dropping the more time she spent in the major. Amidst the bustle of a coffee shop on Stanford’s campus, she discussed the absence of an archetype of success in Silicon Valley that included women and how this culture has seeped into and affected the experiences of Stanford students.

Lea is determined to help change the way women are seen and treated in Silicon Valley and in the technology industry. The founder of the blog Women of Silicon Valley, she is trying to help increase the accessibility of role models for young women studying and working in technical fields.

“As a woman, it’s hard being in tech without having role models,” she told The Daily, discussing her recent piece in Fortune magazine. Her writing discussed gender issues in the technology industry, and was a forthright take on the myriad issues faced by women in technical fields in academia and the professional world.

As a continuation of The Dish Daily’s Women in Tech series, The Daily had the opportunity to talk with her about her experiences in this regard, both at Stanford and in the professional world. She hopes that Women of Silicon Valley will help more young women visualize themselves being in the technology industry.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Why did you start this blog?

Lea Coligado (LC): As a woman, it’s hard being in tech without having role models. If you’re a boy in tech, you have a lot of role models that you can look up to and feasibly visualize yourself in their shoes, like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. I had some bad experiences while working and I was thinking why would a woman want to work in tech if she’s treated this way.

TSD: What was your first experience with computer science?

LC: I was taking two computer science classes in high school, I was the only girl out of about 20 people. And I thought to myself that I definitely wasn’t going to do this.

TSD: What changed at Stanford?

LC: Stanford does a pretty good job in terms of diversity. They have all these societies for women and minorities, and the culture here is so focused on tech.

TSD: You mentioned that you had some bad experiences in courses here. Can you talk about that?

LC: The bad experiences that I had in courses here were not the fault of Stanford or the faculty. It’s the environment, if that makes sense. As I go further down the major, the number of women in my classes has been severely dropping. Part of the bad experience is just knowing that you are a minority and kind of feeling isolated, feeling that people can’t relate with you.

TSD: So would you say that it’s the little things that matter?

LC: It’s the gender ratio that’s intimidating, and it’s some little things. School has not been the biggest deterrent from doing CS. It’s mostly just been people I know from outside of school who don’t have the foundation of progressivism that Stanford really inculcates in its students.

There are also a lot of guys who have big egos and are kind of arrogant. For computer science especially, it’s been very glamorized by the media. Have you seen “Silicon Valley?”

TSD: Yes, I’m familiar with it [the HBO series].

LC: It basically glorifies all these arrogant young men. In computer science especially, the message the media is showing is that if you are an arrogant young man in Computer Science, you’re probably going to get big and be respected. In “Silicon Valley,” all the women are models who they hire to bring the parties. This isn’t even just on TV, like startups, when they’re doing pitches, they’ll have bikini clad women on their slide decks. It’s a very fratty culture.

There’s this very prevalent archetype of what it means to be successful in tech and it’s never female. And I know there are women out there who are absolutely awesome, but why are they getting swept behind the scenes? I think a large part of it is that their presence has not hit media awareness. Let me find these women, let me showcase them, and these pieces will stand to show that there are women out there who are super successful, who are influencing tons of consumers.

TSD: Can you talk more about how you came to contact these successful women?

LC: The summer after freshman year, I worked at Facebook, and my mentor was awesome, so I got to talk to some women in his network who really inspired him. And a lot of female alumni in CS will come back and work for the support network, so it’s been a lot easier to find women.

TSD: You were featured in a Fortune article. Can you speak more about that?

LC: The Fortune article was especially helpful and doubled my following. There have been goods and bads about the article. I read the online commentary, and some of it was just scathing, and the adage holds that you should never read the comment section. In one part of the article, I use the word ‘sausage fest,’ and I got a ton of accusations that I used the words ‘sausage fest.’ I got a lot of accusations that I’m just complaining. I got accused of being a beneficiary of affirmative action.

TSD: And how do you feel about that?

LC: The reason I wrote the article in the first place is that these sentiments exist. And the commentary online is all anonymous, but people I actually know are extremely supportive. I’ve gotten a lot of nominations about women to feature, a lot of support from friends and family, a lot of strangers reaching out who told me they could relate to this.

TSD: Is there anything you want to add?

LC: One thing I really want to say is that the article very much focused on me and my bad experiences. It made me sad, because I’m presenting a solution, but the article paid a disproportionate amount of attention of what brought me to the solution. Doing this blog has been very validating. If you look at the women, they’re very well put together and are all very fashionable.

TSD: Do you think that matters?

LC: I think that matters because part of the reason many of my female friends don’t go into CS is because they think they have social skills and don’t think women who do computer science have that. But these women disprove the widespread sentiment that you either have social skills or you’re really smart.

I have a friend who dresses really fashionably and when she goes to conventions, people are surprised and often ask her, “Oh you’re in CS? You don’t look like you’re in CS.”

Comments like that really just shouldn’t be happening. The way you look and the way you act should not make people make any implications about your coding ability.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Jenny Lu contributed to this report.

Contact Nitish Kulkarni at nitishk2 ‘at’ stanford.edu

Nitish Kulkarni '16 is a senior majoring in Mechanical Engineering. He writes about technology and breaking news, and runs online content sections. Email him at nitishk2 'at' stanford.edu.

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