An NJIT Student Takes on Tech's Gender Gap: 'Representation Matters'

Jinisha Patel speaks to a group of New Jersey high school technology teachers and administrators during a special dinner hosted at NJIT. The dinner, sponsored jointly by computer science professor James Geller's Building Recruiting and Inclusion for Diversity (BRAID) grant and professor Vincent Oria's NSF project, offered ideas to help increase the number of women studying computing and ways to overcome the challenges of teaching cybersecurity.

I grew up in India and moved to the United States nine years ago just as I was starting high school.

It was hands down the worst experience of my life.

I had a thick accent and got hit with a huge dose of culture shock. All my teachers and everyone around me spoke fast. I always felt like I couldn’t catch up. My GPA hovered around a 2.0 and was steadily dropping.

Coincidentally, I got placed into a class called Intro to Java. I had no idea what that meant. I thought Java was coffee. But I gave it a shot.

As I immersed myself in the computer program language, I started to gain focus. Learning computer science helped me to perform better in all my other classes. Soon, my GPA rose to a 3.0. It was hard work, but it was work that I didn’t mind doing because I had finally found something I could relate to. It was invigorating.

It wasn’t until after I graduated from high school and began community college that I discovered the gender gap in the tech field. I noticed one of my professors favoring all the men over me. It wasn't until I looked around the room that I realized I was the only woman in the class.

When I landed an internship at Cisco my freshman year, my peers told me I only got the job because I was a girl, as if my talent and skill had nothing to do with my being hired.

Those constant nudges started to really affect my confidence.

That was the day I vowed to use my time at NJIT to become an advocate for women in computer science.

Women make up around 47 percent of the workforce in the United States yet companies like Google, Microsoft, Twitter—any major tech company you can think of— say 20 percent or less of their technical staff are women. That drives me crazy.

Technology is everywhere. You can’t escape it. So I want everyone—especially women—to have the chance to explore it and personalize it. That’s what technology does: It helps us express ourselves. That’s what it continues to do for me.

Whenever I meet a high school girl who’s unsure if she wants to study computer science, I encourage her to consider it as a minor. I even do it here at NJIT with my sorority sisters.

I find that young women are turned off by the prospect of programming based on their misperceptions of the profession. “I don’t want to be a programmer and sit at a desk and code all day,” they often tell me. But that’s not an accurate depiction of the job.

When I was a programmer at Cisco, I worked from the beach. It was awesome, and the flexibility is great. You can program from anywhere. Also, computer science isn’t just about programming. You can do so many other things in technology. You don’t just have to be a software engineer.

Last year, I ran a Girls Who Code club. I was really nervous standing up there in front of all those impressionable young women as they looked to me to encourage them to give computer science a try.

Turns out, they ended up inspiring me. They inspired me to be a stronger advocate, a better programmer…to be a better role model.

As computer science educators, advocates and motivators, it’s up to us to inspire, influence and spark the interest as early as possible.

The best student in my Girls Who Code club was 4 years old. She learned to program using “Let it Code with Anna and Elsa” on code.org. It was a bit hard to communicate with her because she was only four, but I was so impressed at how easily she understood the instructions and completed the assignment.

This is why it's imperative that more women are included in and help to create the dialogue around tech. There need to be more female leaders in the tech sector placed in the spotlight. We need more women on the front lines fighting to reverse the impostor syndrome that permeates the workplace, especially among the underrepresented.

It’s the best way to give other women and young girls the confidence they need to step into the male-dominated field, equipped with the tools to thwart the inevitable stereotypes and gender biases sure to come their way.

I would probably still be the sheepish girl in the corner of that all-boys classroom in community college, struggling to find her voice if it hadn't been for attending the Grace Hopper Conference or the National Center for Women & Technology, where I was introduced to a boatload of new technologies and got to stand in solidarity with powerful women, working to debunk the myth that coding and programming is a man’s job.

It’s the reason why I created the Women in Computing Society club here at NJIT: to create a sisterhood and instill confidence in women.

If young women don’t see people who look like them in positions of power in the tech industry, how can we expect them to aspire to be the next Steve Jobs or encourage them to pursue careers in computing?

Recently, I saw one of the young ladies from the Girls Who Code camp. She ran up to me and gave me a warm hug. I was shocked that she remembered me. As we broke from our embrace, she looked up at me with a bright smile and said, “I’m going to be a computer science major."

Remember, representation matters. If they can’t see it, it makes it twice as hard for them to believe they can be it.

As told to Shydale James
sjames@njit.edu

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Jinisha Patel graduated from NJIT in 2016 with a B.S. in computing and business and landed a job as a technology associate at Bank of America.

Patel—along with computer science professor James Geller—has been instrumental in NJIT’s crusade to bridge the gender gap and increase awareness around the lack of diversity in computer science and STEM.

In 2015, Patel was the only U.S. college student to speak at the United Nations Global Compact Women’s Empowerment Principles event. She was also a panelist at the Murray Center for Women in Technology Conference and is a founding member of the Women in Computing Society at NJIT.

Patel volunteered at the White House in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. She helped to plan a computer science tech jam and a hackathon that comprised of educators, students and professional developers, who came together to find creative solutions to solve the lack of K-12 computer science education in the United States.

This story is tagged: college of computing sciences, woman student, ccs, stem . Or read more Feature Stories.