What’s it really like for a woman to build a successful career in the technology industry? GeekWire contributing writer Lisa Stiffler set out to answer that question with this special project, profiling eight women who graduated from the University of Washington’s Computer Science & Engineering department in the mid-1990s.
This week on the GeekWire radio show and podcast, we are joined by one of those women, Elizabeth Walkup, a senior software engineer at Tableau Software in Seattle, who shares her story and talks about the broader issues facing women in technology. In the first segment, we talk with Lisa about her takeaways and the genesis of the project as part of GeekWire’s Impact Series, underwritten by the Singh Family Foundation.
Listen to the show below, download the MP3 here, and continue reading for key takeaways from Walkup’s comments.
Elizabeth Walkup on the challenges facing women in tech: “It’s also a maddeningly subtle issue because when we look at trends about women in general, sometimes we forget about the individual women. The ways in which biases affect women affect individuals differently and they don’t just affect women, so we want to have efforts to encourage more women in tech, but they can become very blunt instruments, which don’t actually serve women, or men, or tech well. Therefore, one has to be very flexible with offering lots of opportunities without a very specific set of ‘must-dos.'”
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One thing she would change about tech workplaces: “I think it would be better if people were much more willing to be wrong. … We have ideas of how things are going to turn out. Then, they’re not quite what we expect. It’s so lovely, both from the technology standpoint and interacting with people to notice that something isn’t going quite right and say huh, I need to look at this. What am I missing? Start asking questions. That’s the most fun part of tech. It’s not so much that we get solutions, but we get to make solutions that we got by asking a bunch of different questions and doing a lot of exploring.”
On her own experience: “I think I’ve been very fortunate with the choice of where I went to grad school and the luck that I had to go at the particular time that I went. The type of thing that really concerns me is when people bluntly say we need to spend a lot of money to get more women in the pipeline. Well, that will help some of the problem, but what you really want, I think, is to make sure that all of the people, male or female who would enjoy this work, know that there is a pipeline to get into and get there. My gut instinct is that in a well-organized world without biases, I suspect that the number of men and women would be about equal, but whether or not women are better at computer science, or men are better at computer science, or both are the same, making sure that the people who love and enjoy this work have access to do it, enjoying that and doing the work well, I think is far more important than making sure the exact numbers line up.”
Her advice to young girls interested in careers in technology: “If you really love it, keep doing it. Even if it’s not a specific category that everyone thinks exists. We have whole fields of science and mathematics that didn’t exist thirty years ago. If you like biology and computing, you should be bringing those things together. Thirty years ago there were a very small number of people doing that. Now, there’s a whole industry that does that. That would be first thing. The second thing, and I think this works for everyone: expect adversity. There are times when things aren’t going to go well, but practicing resilience is very helpful. I did not play sports. I would actually recommend that to everybody who wants to gain that sense of resilience and the ability to come back from a defeat, because when you’re playing games, you lose and win regularly.”
On the importance of affordable education: “One of the things that really contributed to my success was affordable public universities. When I went to undergrad, I think a quarter’s tuition at UC San Diego was about $370, $400. Minimum wage in California was maybe $3.50, $4. The minimum wage has about doubled since then and the cost of the tuition has gone up something like ten, by a factor of ten. At the time, if you were fortunate enough to live close to a public university and your family was willing to let you live at home, you could work part time, go to school full time, and get a great education and not be in debt, and that’s not true anymore.”