Meet 5 dynamic Microsoft women inspiring change in technology
By Aimee Riordan | March 06, 2014
It takes everyone to innovate. And this is not just for inclusion, it’s by necessity.
“Diversity is critical if we’re going to be a world-leading company,” says Rane Johnson, a director at Microsoft Research Connections. “And it’s not just diversity in gender, it’s diversity in thought.”
Microsoft is proud to join in International Women’s Day, March 8, to celebrate women who have and will change the world.
On this front, Microsoft is committed to developing technology, programs and people that empower women to realize their potential and pursue their passions. As a company and as a culture, we’ve made progress, but there’s still work to be done.
Women make up only 25 percent of the workforce in computer science jobs in the United States, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and just 24 percent of the Microsoft U.S. employee base.
That’s why, through Microsoft YouthSpark, Microsoft has taken an active role to ensure it’s growing the next generation of women in technology today: from programs like DigiGirlz and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, to events like the International Women’s Hackathon andGrace Hopper.
Meet a board member, a researcher, a software engineer, a test lead and a diversity manager, all of whom are driving the company to new heights — and are themselves a diverse and dynamic bunch.
Steph Burg grew up alongside a 3-acre cornfield in the middle of rural Wisconsin, a long way from the Microsoft campus.
“I had no idea anything like this job was possible,” she says. “I’d tinkered some with computers in high school, but that was about it.”
It wasn’t until a friend at the University of Wisconsin suggested that she had a brain for computer science that the light bulb went on. She ditched her math major and graduated with degrees in computer science and molecular biology.
Today, Burg is a software developer on the Publishing, Authoring, Reading and Collaborating team, which owns Word and Publisher. The code she writes helps make the words we type, “look elegant on the screen”. She began at Microsoft as an intern for the same team more than four years ago.
Though she was often the only woman in many of her college classes, she said it never bothered her. “I’m an aggressive and assertive women,” Burg explains. “I’m not naturally shy.”
She does, however, understand the challenges women in computer science face. “A lot of them can’t see themselves in my shoes,” Burg says. “That’s one of the big hurdles. We need to help women realize this is something they can do.”
That’s why Burg participates in Teaching Kids Programming, which brings middle and high school girls from Seattle to Redmond for an afternoon of learning the fundamentals of code. She says most girls leave that experience knowing more about computer science than she did when she started college.
Burg also attends Grace Hopper, an annual global conference – named for one of the pioneers in the field – that brings together and celebrates women in technology. She says she hopes her efforts at outreach will help middle- and high-school girls realize that they can be in her shoes someday.
“If I can show them this exists, and it’s fun, maybe I’ll be for them what that friend was for me when he said, ‘You have the right brain to do this.’”
Microsoft Research Connections’ Johnson says hers is the best job at Microsoft.
As a director at Microsoft Research Connections, she focuses on how to grow the number of women and underrepresented groups in research, computing and engineering.
“Our hope is that if we have a much more diverse research and technical team that we’re going to innovate in a totally different level than any other company,” Johnson says.
Simply put, women and men approach problems differently. Research from “Forbes” and the “Harvard Business Review” has shown organizations that have women leaders and women on technical teams are more profitable, have higher job satisfaction and better team collaboration, says Johnson, an 11-year Microsoft veteran.
Her start in technology was born of adversity.
After a turbulent childhood, Johnson was legally emancipated from her parents at age 14 and had to work full time and pay her rent. A gift store manager at a hotel in north Portland, she spent her lunch breaks at the mall across the street, browsing the magazines at a store called Software Etc.
One day the manager offered her a job. She became a sales associate and explained to customers how computers worked, while building systems in her off time. She started college as a computer science engineer, but hated it. She ended up majoring in mechanical engineering instead, where she could work in robotics to help people.
“It wasn’t the boys that scared me away. It wasn’t the work that scared me away. It was that nobody explained that I could make an impact,” Johnson remembers. “Some people are motivated by money. Some by the cool factor of technology. A lot of young women want to help people.”
She says it’s critical to communicate to young women that innovations in technology are helping people with HIV, stopping the human trafficking of minors, helping communities recover from natural disasters and helping us learn more about climate change.
It’s also essential to let women know that you don’t have to be a math whiz to be successful. “If you’re creative and a good problem solver, you’re going to be great at computer science. You will learn the math,” says Johnson.
Johnson and the Microsoft Research Connections Team are hosting the second annual International Women’s Hackathon in April to encourage women to pursue computer science at universities around the world. Last year’s event spanned 14 campuses in seven countries and included more than 600 participants. This year, they’re expecting much more.
The hackathon is a great place to learn how to make a mobile app, or a new tool. It’s also an opportunity to build relationships and meet future mentors.
“It’s really important for us to have women role models, especially the younger generation,” Johnson says. “They need to be able to imagine themselves in those leadership positions.”
Maria Klawe’s decision to go into computer science was initially born of pragmatism — there were few opportunities available in her chosen field of mathematics — but it wasn’t long before it became her passion.
Klawe, one of two women on Microsoft’s Board of Directors, is president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. She’s proud to report that women there make up 40 percent of computer science classes today. That’s compared with 14 percent of Computer Science Bachelor of Science recipients at Ph.D. granting institutions nationwide over the past five years, according to the Computing Research Association’s Taulbee Survey.
Klawe argues that having more women working in the field is not just good for technology, it’s good for the world.
“When I think of the continued impact software and hardware will have over the next few decades, it’s clear that it’s going to play a huge role in issues around the world. We need to have our best teams working on these problems,” she says. “You get better solutions if you bring in people with different perspectives.”
At the end of the day, it’s notable that Microsoft is doing a “long list of things” to encourage women in technology, she adds. “If we really want to make progress, we have to be working on the issues pulling all levers in all directions.”
As a culture, we’re making progress, Klawe says, but there’s still the problem of perception.
“If you think about how forensic science, or doctors, or lawyers, are portrayed on television, it’s different from what you see of computer scientists. They are either missing, or they promote stereotypes,” Klawe says. “The easiest way to fix this problem is if we could get both male and female computer scientists, young people doing exciting things, portrayed in the media.”
Call it a “CSI” for coding.
She also wants young women to know that jobs in technology are great jobs, in aspirational ways as well as in practical ones: They pay well. And if you have children, they offer the flexibility to be part of their lives.
Being a pioneer in your field can be intimidating, but Klawe’s advice to young women interested in pursuing careers in computer science is to believe that they can do it – and stick with it.
“If there’s someone in your class who seems to know a ton, don’t let it intimidate you. The truth is, there’s always someone who talks way too much about what they know. Persistence and hard work are a lot more important than natural ability and prior knowledge.”
Jacinda Chislum sees technology as a tool to help make the world a better place.
“Tech companies make an impact in a way that is unique to other industries,” she says. “Technology provides access to people no matter where they’re born, and opportunities for them to reach their potential no matter where they’re from. This is something I’m very passionate about.”
As Microsoft’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Outreach Manager, she’s also passionate about extending opportunities for careers in technology to everyone regardless of race or gender.
Chislum, who comes from a background in Human Resources, came to Microsoft in 2012. She currently works with external organizations, as well as employee research groups and employee networks that support global inclusion. Soon, she’ll help the Application and Services group and the Cloud and Enterprise group drive diversity.
One of the things Chislum enjoys most about working at Microsoft is the culture of outreach and strong commitment of giving back. An example of this is DigiGirlz, a Microsoft YouthSpark program that gives high school girls the opportunity to learn about careers in technology, and participate in hands-on computer workshops.
“DigiGirlz is unique,” Chislum says. “Other companies might do similar things, but for this program to be wholly owned and originally created in Microsoft is something unique to this organization.”
DigiGirlz has reached 23,500 girls since its inception in 2000, and 6,000 girls in 2013 alone. The program ballooned from 45 events in 2011, to 65 in 2012 and 95 events last year.
It isn’t unusual for Chislum to get emails from girls who participate in the program. “They say they decided to pursue computer science because of DigiGirlz. That is the differentiator. These young women who have all the capability to be successful in this field had no idea this was an option until we introduced it to them. This is what motivates me.”
It’s also what moves her. “Seeing how much of an impression this experience can make on these women is one of the most rewarding things I’ve experienced professionally,” she says.
It’s invaluable, she explains, for Microsoft to be a part of creating an environment where people of different perspectives can be successful in the tech space and leverage those differences to be differentiators in our marketplace.
Women are the primary decision makers when it comes to household finances, so it’s essential for Microsoft to understand what women want, to speak to them and to ensure products are being designed in a way that women want to use them. “We can’t do that if we only have men working here.”
It’s also important to reach young women who wouldn’t otherwise have visibility into the field. Women from underserved communities. Women from underrepresented schools who had no idea this was an option for them.
Chislum’s advice to young women thinking about pursuing careers in tech?
“Just do it. … And don’t be afraid to reach out. You’re not in competition with other women in this space. You’re all in the same gang. We need to support each other to make a difference.”
Dona Sarkar is living proof that software engineers can be girly too.
“When I talk to young women I say this: I’m a girl. I like fashion. I like books. I like hanging out with my friends. I don’t go home and play video games, but I love technology.”
Sarkar, a principal test lead for the Operating Systems group, is also a published author of young adult novels, and designer of her own clothing line: Prima Dona Couture.
“I learned to sew for the first time two years ago. Fashion is just like engineering. It’s visualizing things in 3D, understanding how shapes matter and the effect of gravity,” she says.
Sarkar, who’s worked on Windows as a test lead for eight years, believes that being a good engineer means utilizing both the analytical and the creative sides of your brain.
“As I progressed through my career, I realized there’s a lot of creativity required to shipping products. You have limited time and required deliverables. You have to decide how you’re going to structure the situation. There’s a lot of visualization, and honestly, a lot of fiction writing: ‘What would happen if we didn’t do this, or didn’t do that?’”
A native of Detroit, it was Sarkar’s dad, a Ford Motor Co. IT manager, who first sparked her interest in computers. He said technology was the future. So she took a coding class at a community college.
“There was something amazing about it. I love math, but I also love art. Technology is both,” she says. “I went to high school in the ‘90s when tech was just starting to become a mainstream thing. I realized we were at the bottom of a hill, at the start of an unstoppable climb. I knew I had to be a part of this industry.”
Today, Sarkar helps other girls have the same epiphany. She hopes to be that female role model that she never had.
“There’s still this perception that a software job is facing a screen, writing code all day. There are jobs like that, but there are a lot of other opportunities too. Opportunities for collaboration.”
She gave the keynote address at the Women in Science conference at the University of Washington earlier this month. The title? “Geek is chic”.
The challenge, says Sarkar, is to convince women that they can excel in the field, even if they think they didn’t demonstrate an aptitude for technology in high school.
“Women also don’t want their colleagues to be a bunch of guys in computer club. We have to get rid of the archetype that the tech guy is that guy,” she says. “It is that guy, but the tech geek is also a girl, like me.”
Three women changing the world through technology
Sarah Churman: Hearing for the first time
Celebrating the heroic women of 2013
Profile on Xbox Creative Producer Alex Hebert
YouthSpark Star Abril Vela
YouthSpark Star Ifrah Abshir
Bridging the gender gap
Inspiring change: My mission to support young women to soar
These 4 women achieve childhood dreams at Microsoft