Making the mark in STEM – the ongoing legacy of “Amazing Grace” Hopper

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“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, ‘Do you think we can do this?’ I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back ’em up.” – Dr. Grace Hopper

This week was Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists. Spread across four days in Orlando, FL (October 1-4), attendees participate in a host of events that seek to celebrate, elevate and progress the role of women in STEM. And who better to honor than the late great Dr. Grace Hopper, an acclaimed computer scientist who worked for U.S. Navy during World War II who went on to create COBOL, one of the first programming languages?

Dr. Hopper, who earned a PhD from Yale (a rare accomplishment for any student at the time), is credited with coining the terms ‘bug’ and ‘debug’. The celebration of “Amazing Grace”, earning her nickname through her high naval rank and many accomplishments in math and computer science, serves as a crucial reminder that we have a long way to go in raising the profile of women in STEM and beyond as we continue to strive for a fairer, more equal society. 

After all, history has a terrible habit of overlooking successful female scientists (or, let’s be honest, successful women in general), falling foul to “The Matilda Effect,” a term for the phenomenon whereby women’s accomplishments are co-opted, stolen or overshadowed by male peers. 

We all know about the genius of Alan Turing in cracking the Enigma code, turning WWII in the Allies’ favor. But what about the contributions of his colleague Joan Clarke, a marveled code-breaker at Bletchley Park with a double-first degree in mathematics from Oxford?

What about Cecilia Payne-Gapschkin, the first person to obtain a PhD in Astrophysics, whose thesis proposed that stars were made of hydrogen and helium? Cecilia is all too often a footnote in this breakthrough, for her colleague Henry Norris Russel–the acclaimed astrophysicist–published similar findings after he had persuaded her not to publish her conclusion that the sun was made predominantly from hydrogen. 

Then there’s Nettie Stevens, who completed her PhD in 1903, who somewhat ironically discovered the importance of the Y chromosome in determining a given species’ sex. For a while, it looked as if she was to be seen as a mere extra in the story about the evolution of genetics, because (you guessed it) her idea was pilfered by her male superior, E.B Wilson. While her work was later recognized, the injustice still burns. 

Tragically, these are not isolated incidents and it’s imperative that we all take time to look introspectively at how we as individuals and as a collective, can work together to support those who find themselves marginalized by the social structures that exist in the workplace and beyond. Raising a glass to Amazing Grace, a number of Taskopians have shared their experiences to help us learn and grow as people and colleagues. 

The wonderful world of computer science

“I graduated in chemistry to understand how the world works and the building blocks of the world around us. I continued into technology, blossoming my understanding of software delivery and the building blocks of our electronic world today,” says Zoe Jong, Director of Revenue Operations at Tasktop. “There’s an amazing beauty to our ability to understand this world using the logic and structure of science and technology.” 

“It’s the best thing that I have ever done!” enthuses Laskh Ranganathan, a Senior Solutions Consultant at Tasktop. “I have spent 18 years in this industry in various roles within IT and I can truly say that I have never woken up on a Monday and not been excited to get going. Technology touches every part of our daily life and there are opportunities to blend technology with every other area of interest be it architecture, art, games, medicine, space, construction – the list is endless and as are the opportunities.”

“I was always good at and have always loved math and logic,” explains Tina Dankwart, a Senior Value Stream Architect at Tasktop. “After pursuing a career in horse riding, I was told by some good friends I was way too bright and should pursue a career that required using my brain. I wanted to go to university and math alone didn’t seem great for career choices, so I went for Computer Science.”

As Laura Horner, Director, American Sales East demonstrates, the route into STEM isn’t always linear. “When I worked in the Sales Training Department at NVR, I helped roll out their new (at the time) CRM system to the entire company. I was the SME and had to problem solve, learn the technical pieces of the solution, and I loved it! Every aspect of the experience ‘made sense’ to me and it was then I realized that I wanted to jump into a technology career.”

Role models

It’s apparent that early influence is worth its weight in gold. “We must start when we are young,” stresses Tina. “We need more women who are in tech to go to schools and talk to girls there to encourage them into tech careers. We need to look harder to fill leadership roles with women, or find female employees. After being with the same company for 14 years, I had never even realized that there wasn’t a single woman in any of the leadership roles until you made it as high as our CEO.”

Zoe is quick to underline how crucial role models are, from her “deeply science-curious mom” to her science teachers and professors, emphasizing how “each of these individuals stand out in my mind, and shaped my interest in science. I hope one day I can do the same for others to reach down and bring more women into STEM with me.”

Early influence doesn’t just start in education either. “The more I think about the upbringing of young girls versus young boys (dolls vs. building blocks, toy ovens vs. electronics), the more I worry about our young females entering into STEM feeling they’re already “behind” the pack,” continues Zoe. “ I think the thing I want to say is – NEVER GIVE UP! Your mind will shape this industry and bring the diversity of thought it needs. You deserve to be here. You ARE good enough. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise (especially that voice in your head)!”

As Dr. Hopper reiterated, mentoring is paramount. Laura concurs, suggesting that companies “set up a mentor program for the women. This allows women who are younger in their careers to grow, thrive and share experiences in a safe environment. Give women an outlet to brainstorm, share their ideas, look at ways to improve the current state.”

The power of language

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, “We’ve always done it this way.” – Dr. Grace Hopper

Words matter too. “Use gender-neutral language for everything from marketing and career postings to internal communication,” advises Kenedee, the wife of Shawn Minto, Tasktop’s Senior Director of Support and Technical Services“At the front, companies need to adjust interview processes as women tend to undersell themselves; How do you create a process that will create equality (for all)? Once hired, make sure that mentors are available to allow all team members to grow to their fullest potential. Provide a good work-life balance to drive engagement and productivity.” Think before you type, adds Zoe. “When putting together career plans, job requirements or web pages, have diverse teams to root out implicit bias and gendered words.”

Carving out a career in STEM

While embarking on a career in STEM can seem daunting, your journey can start by merely thinking about the world around you, reflects Laura. “ Keep an open mind and don’t get overwhelmed by the appearance of complexity. We all are consumers of technologies. Think about how you could make technology better. A simple exercise is studying your favorite application – learn it inside and out. Walkthrough the user experience and interface. What excites you about it? What would you change, if anything, and how would you make it better?”

Katherine Jeschke, Tasktop’s Marketing Director, agrees. “I don’t think anyone should shy away from something they enjoy doing. I have been fortunate–though often, I have been one of very few women working in a tech company–and even fewer in management, I have found that people are always happy to work with others who are respectful and forthright. If you have an idea or an opinion, share it. If you need advice or help understanding something, ask. If you need some support, there are many groups out there, like Women Who Code and Women in Technology, where you can find mentors and peers. In the end, you just have to go for it.

“Go ahead and do it!” expounds Tina. “There are not enough of us. The other day I read that ‘the reason that women in technology can be stereotyped is simply because there aren’t enough of us. This is going to sound like the stereotypical answer but – I spent too many years of my life trying to compete with my male counterparts before I realized that I didn’t need to. I bring a very different and complementary skill set to the job and I’ve learned to value this and as a result others do too. I have children and they are my number one priority, but rather than hinder my career I think this has helped me. It has helped me understand where my values are and to act on them, and to be a role model to my children.”

Start your journey with Tasktop

At Tasktop, we recognize that solving difficult problems in society and tech requires different points of view and perspectives. We believe that gender equality is an essential part of what makes businesses thrive. In the words of our CEO and Founder, Dr. Mik Kersten, “The more gender, socio-economic and ethnic diversity we get into tech, the better the ideas and solutions we will discover.”

If you want to be part of our mission and kickstart your career in tech, we have a number of positions available across the company.