BY ALLYSON HUNTOON '19
On Sunday, March 5, Mount Holyoke hosted the annual Girls in Tech Conference. High school students from towns all over Massachusetts traveled to campus and spent the day occupied by a full schedule of workshops and presentations. Highly accomplished women in the fields of technology and entrepreneurship video-called in and ventured onto campus as guest speakers. Girls milled around Kendade, Clapp and Hooker, getting a taste of life in the sciences with each workshop they attended.
Clusters of high school girls with white name tags stuck on their shirts sat patiently in their seats, passing time by rapping lyrics from the play “Hamilton,” scrolling on their phones and showing off the cut-out shapes that they had made using lasers. Each girl sat with her team, waiting together for the chance to pitch their ideas for an original app.
Mount Holyoke computer science students clad in black t-shirts guided groups of students around the science buildings as mentors and volunteer staff for the conference. Guest speakers gave “lightning talks” in which they spent about 15 minutes telling the girls their own stories about life in the field of technology and the importance of women in tech.
Speakers included Sarah Meyer of Buzzfeed, Laney Kuenzel of Facebook, Parisa Tabriz of Google and two Mount Holyoke alumnae, Kat Calvin ’05 and Charu Sharma ’14.
Sharma stood at the front of Hooker Auditorium with familiarity. She joked that she had always wanted to come back and write on the chalkboard, and wrote out the proper way to pitch a new product to investors. She also emphasized the ways in which her liberal arts education at Mount Holyoke prepared her for a creative career in technology and business, saying that, “connecting dots in different disciplines helps you in tech.” She founded a non-profit, Go Against the Flow, and had already started two award-winning companies from her dorm room before graduating. Above all, she noted the problematic confidence gap between men and women in the workplace, encouraging girls to act on their ideas with confidence and “find champions, men or women, who support you.”
Girls attended a wide range of workshops throughout the day, in which they learned to make designs using lasers, work with app designing software and improve their public speaking skills. Along with those for the students, there were events for the teachers, parents and guidance counselors who had accompanied the girls. Sarah Robinson ’17, a computer science major, said that they spoke on a panel specifically aimed at helping these people “understand what the computer science program is like at Mount Holyoke and how that can help them develop programs in their own schools.”
Srishti Palani '18, a computer science and psychology double major, was co-chair of the conference. While taking a quick break between events, she sat on a big red chair in the Kendade Atrium and explained the purpose of the conference.
"Some of these girls may not have internet or a computer at home," Palani said. "The main idea is to expose them to technology and show them there's a person behind it all, and they can be that creator." Palani also felt that it was a significant opportunity for computer science students at Mount Holyoke to give back to the community and divert their attention from the stress of finding jobs and their own places in the field.
It was important to teach the high school girls in attendance that women are working hard in computer science. "Mount Holyoke women are pioneers in this field," she said, noting that it's important to try to tackle large issues like the gender gap in the industry on a local scale. "Everything starts at home."
Palani organized the conference with many other students, including co-chair Kat Aiello '18. "We are a rather social field," Palani said, "We want to make an impact and change things for the better." She mentioned one of the day's recurring themes, which was breaking down the existing stereotypes about who typical computer scientists are, often described as "white men in dark hoodies."
Palani along with many of the speakers insisted that this is not the case. The field is increasingly more diverse; however, Palani says, it is still not diverse enough. She said that one of the main messages that she wanted girls in attendance to receive was to understand that "it's an accessible field. You don't have to fit a certain stereotype to do tech. All the speakers are very diverse, and the work that they do is very different."
After the long day of workshops and presentations, the girls were given a Start-Up Challenge in which they worked in groups to come up with an idea for an original app. They were allowed 90 seconds to pitch their idea to their peers and a panel of judges at the event's closing ceremony. The girls conveyed their ideas through skits and detailed descriptions, explaining apps to find the nearest gender inclusive bathroom, collaborate on shopping trips, connect with professional counselors and more.
Each girl left the conference withmany resources: they learned about future technology based events which they can attend and were exposed to online programs to start learning how to code.
Anisha Pai '19, a computer science major and volunteer at the conference, said that she entered Mount Holyoke as an intended English major. She thinks that it is vital for girls to know that there are women in the field, revealing that if she was not at a women's college then she might not have tried computer science at all.
She said, "If I had something like this as a high school student, I would have come to college knowing that I wanted to do computer science."