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There’s a path for women in tech: Trailblazers and newcomers connect at Grace Hopper for inspiration, real-world advice

Edaena Salinas, a Microsoft software engineer who in her spare time hosts a weekly podcast called “The Women in Tech Show,” is certainly aware of gender issues in the industry — common experiences of unconscious bias, being the only woman in the room, getting talked over in meetings and the like.

Those are valid issues to discuss, Salinas says. Just don’t expect to hear them on her show.

“Women want to talk about the actual technology they’re working on, so while I occasionally talk about diversity and initiatives around that, most of the interviews I do are technical,” Salinas said. “And men listen to the shows, too, so they get to hear these women discussing their work, and that’s a step toward solving the bigger gender problem. Because they might then find it totally normal that their niece wants to major in computer science. And that’s the goal.”

Edaena Salinas Jasso stands with arms folded against a white board filled with calculations.
Edaena Salinas, a Microsoft software engineer, hosts a weekly podcast called “The Women in Tech Show.” (Photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

Salinas will be one of the 18,000 women and men descending on Orlando, Florida, this week for the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. It’s the world’s largest gathering of women technologists, featuring Melinda Gates as this year’s opening-day keynote speaker. The goal is to highlight the contributions of women in tech and provide networking and mentoring opportunities to help encourage women to join the field and support the efforts of those already in it.

It’s also a big recruiting tool, as the industry works to boost the visibility of women and increase their participation. Microsoft expects to conduct more than 300 interviews during the three-day conference. Last year, 31 percent of all new hires coming from universities worldwide were women, up from 28 percent the year before, and the company is aiming for consistent growth in that area.

Heather Shapiro was offered an interview with Microsoft when she first attended the conference three years ago, fresh out of Duke University with a double degree in computer science and statistics. She’d never heard of the job title “tech evangelist,” but it turned out to be a perfect fit for her background in software engineering and public speaking.

She’s now a developer for the company, based in its New York offices, on a team that goes out into the community to conduct workshops and demos, teaching other developers and students how to use Microsoft technologies. She also helps scope developers’ projects, create proofs of concept and solve any bugs that might pop up.

During the two-year Microsoft Academy of College Hires (MACH) program Shapiro recently completed, she was mentored while working with different teams. She also got to participate at a hackathon at the White House for foster-care initiatives – a challenging opportunity she calls the “crown jewel” of her Microsoft career so far.

Heather Shapiro stands smiling, wearing a blue dress with a floral print
Heather Shapiro was recruited at the Grace Hopper conference to be a tech evangelist for Microsoft. (Photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

Shapiro is learning sign language in order to create a program that will convert text into sign-language GIFs to make presentations more accessible to deaf people. “My dad’s been sick since I was young, so accessibility has always been on my mind, thinking about things like where the elevator is and how far he will have to walk,” Shapiro said. “I realized recently that I’d only been to one presentation that was signed, so it’s become a huge passion of mine now, to learn sign language and help people feel more welcomed.”

Shapiro and Salinas each grew up in families that loved math and technology and offered them ready access to both as young girls.

Their career choices and experiences of inclusion and empowerment are thanks in large part to women who paved the way, including Grace Hopper — a computer scientist and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who was best known for her 1953 invention of the compiler, a program that translates English language into computer instructions — and, more recently, Joy Chik, corporate vice president for the Identity division in Microsoft’s Cloud + Enterprise group.

When Chik started as an engineer for Microsoft 20 years ago, she was almost always the only woman in the room. “I stuck out no matter where I went, which is a common story for women in tech,” she said.

But Chik shied away from women-focused groups such as the Grace Hopper conference — which was founded around the same time she began her career, in the late ‘90s — because she worried about the stigma of associating her achievements and accomplishments with her gender. “I wanted to be sure my success was based on my own identity and what I’d done,” she said.

A head shot of Joy Chik, who is wearing a navy blue dress
Joy Chik started as an engineer for Microsoft 20 years ago.

It wasn’t until a male boss encouraged her to attend the event in 2013 that Chik realized the value of shared experiences. Away from the workplace, women at the event felt more space and freedom to talk about their struggles, she recalled.

“Now especially, as a woman who made it to a senior position, one reflection is that I had the same experiences as others in terms of being the only woman, and figuring out how to get a seat at the table, how to not let conscious or unconscious bias discourage you, how to prove yourself, and how important it is to have a broader network to help you through the journey,” Chik said.

“Being able to share that openly, for the first time, with others who had the same journey not only was a relief to me, but sharing what worked for me and my own struggle gave younger women encouragement and courage.”

Chik sees the Grace Hopper conference’s growth — Microsoft alone is sending more than 800 people to the event this year — as both a celebration as well as a call to action. Women have great success stories to share, she said, but they also still face bias on a daily basis.

Chik tells of “laughable moments” that she doesn’t spend much energy on, such as when the driver of a campus shuttle for corporate vice presidents such as herself wouldn’t let her on recently, explaining to her that it was only for executives. “I either wasn’t male enough or old enough,” she said.

But there are other times when she watches in disbelief as a group of male peers in a meeting where she’s the only woman look to each other for authority in an area where she’s the most experienced.

Either way, Chik said, it’s important to assume the person didn’t act or speak intentionally, and then point out the potential bias in a constructive way.

“How we perceive and react to bias, and how we let it impact our own thinking and our confidence, is just as important as the actual event, because it has a ripple effect on our lives and work,” she said.

Salinas (left) and Shapiro (right) grew up in families that loved math and technology and offered them ready access to both as young girls. (Photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

Salinas said her podcast was inspired by a woman in the Windows division – where Salinas first worked when she joined Microsoft in 2014 after getting a master’s degree in computer science – who organized a monthly Q&A with various Microsoft leaders. The events were most popular among women, Salinas noticed, so she started her podcast with female tech leaders last year.

In addition to broadcasting in her spare time, Salinas now works for Microsoft Research on adding artificial intelligence (AI) features to products such as Outlook and Dynamics. And she’s passionate about helping women network and learn from each other, especially when it comes to trying out new skills that will take them further in their careers.

“Don’t be afraid to approach new areas,” she said. “Instead of binge watching Netflix, binge watch a course on AI. Learn a new skill on the side and then switch to a different type of role. If you’re in coding and want to be in management, then manage a group of girls in a boot camp. Look for other opportunities, and don’t hesitate.”

Shapiro says her team at Microsoft is made up of more women than men, but in general, she’s the minority out in the field and on calls. So she finds it “super empowering” to be at the Grace Hopper conference, which has doubled in size since she began attending in 2014, and see so many female leaders.

“These women have had to stand up to so much,” she said. “They share their experiences so we know it will be hard, but we can see that there’s a path to get there. It can be done. There are obviously a lot of hurdles, but the trends are changing.”

Top image: Edaena Salinas Jasso and Heather Shapiro will be among more than 18,000 gathered this week at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. (Photography by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)