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Diversity Difficulties in Tech: Women need to be prepared to change the rules

Image Credit: Columbia Engineering/Timothy Lee Photographers

Last night, Mary Boyce, Dean of Columbia School of Engineering and Applied Science, along with Ursula Burns, the first African American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company, and Bloomberg editor Janet Paskin convened to talk tech as part of, “She Opened The Door,” a Columbia Alumni Association initiative created to facilitate more networking opportunities among Columbia alumnae.

Though the discussion began as an opportunity to spotlight a sundry of female voices that have seen success in both engineering and tech workspaces, it became about the efforts to eliminate the number of obstacles – both mental and manmade – for young women to follow a path less traveled: theirs.

For Burns, despite attending a Catholic school lacking, “strong,” math classes, a career in engineering was synonymous with the highest earning potential and therefore, attractive to a student who was driven by the desire to take care of her mother. Boyce – on the other hand – seemed to show a passion for, ‘solving puzzles,’ as she referred to engineering, early on and pursued engineering notwithstanding similar impediments.

“When we were in high school, this wasn’t something the girls were studying,” Boyd echoed.

Burns stressed the need to redefine the word, ‘engineering,’ as it tends to intimidate more often than it inspires. Engineering, she asserts, is simply, “A way of thinking.”

“It’s a way of addressing and tackling problems…We have to move past the word.”

Boyce then cited the fact that a liberal arts degree with an engineering foundation is gaining popularity and may provide an increased likelihood of being hired out of college. She said she regularly challenges female students pursuing liberal arts to take one engineering or computer science class.

“What we’ve seen is they take that first class and they want to take a second one,” Boyce said. “You have to help them get over the barrier.”

In terms of enacting change within the industry itself, all three women agreed, female leadership is not an optional extra. It’s a necessity for the livelihood of any company.

“Leaders set tones. Let’s not forget, women are still paid disproportionately less than men,” Burns deadpanned.

In addition to more all-encompassing representation, both Burns and Boyce both emphasized the importance of accessibility to female mentors in addition to support systems that allow for women to advocate on one another’s behalf.

Burns also specified that women shouldn’t try to fit into a world created by men, and encouraged women to avoid trying to change who they are in order to conform.

“We have to rethink everything. If you think about the world we’re living in, men designed it. They selected the players. They selected the rules. Then, they selected what ‘winning’ looks like. We don’t quite fit that. Women have to be fundamentally prepared to change the rules.”

The final thirty minutes were allotted for Burns, Boyce and Paskin to field questions from audience members – most being driven and decorated female students of the Applied Science and Engineering program. One even claimed Burns was at the epicenter of her, ‘vision board.’

Women like Ursula Burns, Dean Mary Boyce and Janet Paskin may have opened the door, but it will be the young women watching – both current students of Columbia and recent college graduate like myself – who will soon tear it off its hinges.

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