Story by Ilena Peng
She was one of two women in the artificial intelligence department at SRI International, a research and development organization in nearby Menlo Park, Calif. Even though the classes she teaches at MVHS are filled with young women, AP Computer Science Principles (APCSP) teacher Debbie Frazier was a minority in a male-dominated tech industry.
Being a minority is a part of her identity. She’s always strayed from gender stereotypes — not just in her STEM career choice, but in hobbies like rock climbing as well. And even though women in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) industries are more common in the tech-dominated Silicon Valley, women are still the minority. In keeping with the Women in Tech Festival hosted at Microsoft on March 24 and 25, these are the stories of those at MVHS who love everything STEM.
Even in college, Frazier was only vaguely aware that a computer science major existed. Her roommate was a computer science major, and although she was a biology major with a minor in linguistics, she helped with her roommate’s homework. Despite not knowing anything related to programming, she loved puzzles — and this, to her, felt like just another puzzle. Even as she worked through her minor in linguistics, she still thought about the computer.
“I thought we just really need to be able to [communicate] with a computer because then you don’t have to find the person from the country to speak to, you can just talk to your computer,” Frazier said.
She first realized she liked computers when she met a robotic turtle in her elementary school classroom. It was an odd thing that resembled a Roomba robot vacuum and had a pen stuck attached to it. The goal was to teach students the programming language “Logo” or another version of it called “Pencil Code.” Yet for the students, the real fun was trying to get the robot to write their name using the pen that was attached to it. Frazier got it to write her first name “Deborah” on the first try.
After meeting that robotic turtle, she wouldn’t be exposed to computer science again until freshman year of high school. When the company Hewlett Packard (HP) gave her high school new graphing calculators to test for bugs, Frazier already knew she loved computers. In college, she chose to be a biology major. But through helping her college roommate in computer science assignments and watching one of her advisers write simulations for biological research, Frazier soon became fascinated with computers.
In the workplace, Frazier has always sensed some natural judgement, where people would initially wonder whether she belonged there. She doesn’t credit that to the fact that she was a woman, although she does believe being one of the few women in the department augmented doubts about whether she belonged. But ever since grade school, she’s become accustomed to fitting into male-dominated environments.
“I don’t want to make waves, but I want to show that I belong so I’m, you know, professional and attentive and ask good questions and don’t get overly emotional or social, which I think is an excellent stereotypical trait of women but I think can sometimes create a different dynamic that sometimes guys stereotypically don’t know how to deal with,” Frazier said. “So I just kind of be one of the guys.”
Yet as much as she dislikes gender stereotypes, she thinks there’s some truth to them. That being said, Frazier doesn’t agree that these notions are negative. Instead, she thinks these stereotypes can help people adjust curriculums and industries to appeal more to people of both genders.
“When I was young I used to think ‘nah, everybody can do everything — there is no boy this or girl that, right?’ … but you know, honestly, after having kids, I think that there probably are innate differences between the genders,” Frazier said. “I think it’s natural for human beings to want to stereotype so I don’t know that it’s such a bad thing for us to focus on the genders and try to mix things up a little bit, try to make everything a little bit more attractive for all kinds of people.”
In sixth grade, sophomore Sanjana Shah sat in the Apple store for a session called “Hour of Code.” In a room of 10 to 15 elementary school students, Shah observed that she was one of the two or three girls there. She recalls feeling devastated. She wondered if this was a one time occurrence — if some girls had just not shown up.
Yet not long after, Shah found herself in a computer science club surrounded by around 50 boys. At first there were three girls. Three months later, there was only one other girl. And half a year later, she was the only girl in a classroom full of boys.
“One girl dropped out, one girl… moved and so I was the only one left,” Shah said. “And so I was like ‘okay, [time to] empower.’”
She remembers that moment vividly, even though it was four years ago. Being the only girl in that room made her want to quit. If it wasn’t for her early exposure to computing, she probably would’ve left that class. Shah mentions how women have historically had unequal rights in the workplace in all industries, not just STEM industries. To Shah, that’s the greatest stereotype that keeps women away from STEM. But she believes that when women expose themselves to what STEM has to offer, it would keep them motivated to push through the field despite its male domination.
“I feel like if women were surrounded by others of the same gender as well as if they showed a lot of their own interest towards it, then they would see what the greatness... of computer science,” Shah said.
At that first session in the Apple store, Shah had learned to drag and drop segments of code that produced animations. That wasn’t enough to satisfy Shah’s curiosity, and she began to wonder what was in those sequences of seemingly random letters that made those animations run. She’s always had an interest about how things worked behind the scenes, and that interest has dragged her deeper into a love for computer science.
Those first two experiences in that Apple session and that computer science club in sixth grade are moments that she can’t forget, simply because the gender imbalance was just so severe. And the message she took away from those experiences is something even she considers a bit cliche, but continues to live with everyday that she continues computing. Shah pauses to take a sip of water from her water bottle — a water bottle that’s from Apple — before saying one last remark.
“I want to say to all those girls out there, try to be something different. Don’t follow your peers if there’s something [else] you have an interest in… don’t be swayed by others’ opinions,” Shah said. “Believe in yourself.”
Senior Johanna Karras may be planning on majoring in computer science now, but in sixth grade, she was never interested in anything STEM related. In elementary school, those careers were nothing more than big words.
“We would go around saying ‘What do you wanna be when you grow up?’ you know, and you’d get a lot of ‘I want to be a cardiac surgeon,’ ‘I want to be a neuroscientist,’ ‘I want to be a software engineer,’” Karras said. “I had no idea about any of that. I wanted to be a model or a fashion designer.”
It wasn’t until seventh grade, when she started to learn biology, that she felt like she was doing real science. She enjoyed math and science and was good at it. Her science teacher that year also helped, encouraging her to take science more seriously. By the time she headed to high school, she was sure she wanted to become more involved in something STEM-related.
She soon found her home in a club called WiSTEM, which stands for “Women in STEM” – a club she is now co-president of. Among the numerous STEM-based clubs at MVHS, WiSTEM was the most appealing to her, partly because members get to do a lab every week. The club’s focus on women allows them to invite influential guest speakers who serve as role models. And the club was small enough to feel like a close-knit family. WiSTEM covers all four aspects of STEM. These days, Karras tends to lean towards the technological side of STEM, even though seventh grade biology was what first sparked her interest in it all.
“As much as I did like [biology], I like how when I took computer science… I found that it wasn’t just me learning about the world anymore, it was me creating things for the world,” Karras said.
For Karras, that sense of purpose is what makes STEM careers interesting. She knows that the stereotype that all STEM careers result in a boring desk job full of calculations keeps people away. After all, she points out that it’s hard to stay motivated when the result seems lackluster.
“When we have this idea that ‘oh being good at this field or pushing into this area [means] I’m just gonna end up at a desk job,’ it really takes away the excitement and the possibilities that these fields could have,” Karras said. “I feel like some girls might feel like ‘Oh, what’s the point — why am I slaving over calculus and why am I stressing out over physics if I’m just gonna end up in some lame job with a bunch of guys in hoodies?’”