OPINION — It certainly feels like an exciting time to be a woman. The female voice is loud and strong. In just the past year we’ve had a serious contender, for the first time in our history, running for President of the United States. In much smaller gains, women in the film and music industry are some of the highest paying artists ever. There’s no lack of strong female examples in sports, and even right now, the number one movie in the country is “Wonder Woman.” But these are all glamorous examples that perhaps take away from the actual and significant gains of women as of late. Behind the scenes, the women shaping the current spectrum and future generations are working toward making a world where women are seated at the highest tables, recognized not for their gender, but their talents. One such important table is that of the engineer.
“We’re creating the role models for tomorrow to solve the gender gap in pay, in education and to create a more level playing field for all people so that our society is including 50 percent of the population and to be solving some of the world’s biggest challenges,” said Erin Geiger, newly appointed Vice President of Business Development for Hackbright Academy, an all-women, 12-week intensive boot camp software development program, located in San Francisco amongst the burgeoning and exploding world of tech in Silicon Valley. “What if women were in the boardroom? What if women were directors of these larger institutions? What are the different ideas and the different networks that might be brought to the table and what does it mean when a woman is financially stable and secure?”
Geiger, backed with more than 15 years of experience traveling the world promoting the advancement of social and economic opportunities for girls and women, asks these questions already knowing the answers. But her job is to show the rest of the world what those answers could actually mean.
Hackbright Academy describes itself as an engineering school “designed to bring talented women from non-traditional backgrounds into the tech industry” and touts that they have “over 500 graduates working at more than 100 top tech firms.”
It’s impressive and inviting but with a little research you’ll see just why places like Hackbright exist and how important their mission really is. Based on a 2009 study reported in a 2014 Huffington Post Article, it was reported that 20 percent of all engineering school graduates were women, but made up only 11 percent of practicing engineers. In a 2011 ESA (Economics & Statistics Administration) briefing it was reported that women hold less than 25 percent of all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) related jobs, were less likely to work in STEM occupations even though they held STEM degrees and that they earned 14 cents less than their male counterparts, facing a 14 percent gender wage gap. So while it’s wonderful to have schools and institutions like Hackbright urging more women to enter the engineering field, there still remains a problem within the existing work climates and their lack of inclusiveness and understanding. Geiger affirms that Hackbright is doing more than just educating women, but also changing the industry perspective.
“Looking ahead, we’re actually consulting with companies about how to make a favorable work place environment, how to take bias out of your interviewing. How to make non traditional candidates, whether from women or under represented minorities or people from boot camps in general, which include men and women from other schools, how do you make it so that this is going to be a place where they’re going to, number one, come to work for you and number two, stay. So we’re actually in this consultative phase with employers,” said Geiger.
Just five years in, Hackbright was started by two men who were students at the height of the boot camp movement in San Francisco. Having both noticed the lack of women in their very large classes, they began observing the ways in which the few women who were there participated and how, in turn, they were treated. They saw that the women weren’t called upon in class, seemed more reserved and unwilling to ask questions and it got them thinking what their experience would be like if their environment was that of only women. What heights could their education reach and how far would their confidence grow if they were the majority and not the minority? And so a new venture was born, created to help tip the scales in a more balanced way in a very male dominated field.
“As any new program or initiative is starting, your first customers are the ones who are shaping the business with you, and because we understand that connecting women in communities builds confidence and network, we created the program so that there would be mentors for every learner. We created the program where women would be in the classroom, women with software engineering experience, so that they could seem themselves in these roles and it wasn’t, sort of perpetuating this gender issue,” explained Geiger, “Put gender aside, how do we get smart? How do we increase skills and achieve high paying salaries and how do we build careers, not because we’re women, but because these are the jobs that are changing the future, these are the jobs that are shaping every industry, not just the tech industry, and so through that organic and very intentional style of what happens in the classroom and how we connect to employers and people in outside networks, that’s how the company grew.”
Still considered something of a startup, Hackbright is funded through tuition and recruitment services they employ with networked and partnered companies. That being said, though it is a high possibility that upon graduation, students will find themselves into their desired position, Hackbright is not focused on being a placement service institution.
“I’m a newly created position on the executive leadership team, and my role is to grow the business and the way that we’re doing that is engaging employers way more strategically, way more early and often and so it’s not just about placing talent, it’s about advancing the movement, it’s about creating conversations in between employers and candidates about what they’re looking for, how do they interview, what are the skills and minds that are needed in order to succeed in the role? How would employers practice interviews with candidates? How are we sort of eliminating the mystery of having to get a job? We’re actually facilitating more intimate conversations with employers,” said Geiger, “we’re creating relationships with employers to dispel myths and put our candidates in a really positive and confident place that they can navigate their careers going forward with all types of employers because what we have right now is a lot of misconceptions on both sides – employers thinking that boot camp graduates might not be ready to hit the ground running, that’s a perception or sometimes a myth, and then the perception and myth from the candidate’s perspective which is ‘they’re not going to want to hire me. They have so many other people who are better than me’ and so we’re creating deeper and more meaningful relationships with employers that are way beyond placement to jobs, it’s confidence building, it’s pep talks, it’s panels of diverse engineers people have inside their companies and they’re like, ‘this is the woman we hired who used to be a dental hygienist, we want to hire people like you, we have funding for diversity and inclusion, we’re building apprenticeship programs, we’re building year long internship programs, we want to be able to hire you’ – building those kind of conversations. Which is really different from producing engineers and hoping they get jobs.”
Working off the now famous quote by Marian Wright Edelman, which was featured in the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, “You can’t be what you can’t see”, Hackbright Academy is hoping to fire up the imaginations of girls and women by partnering with other networks, organizations and youth groups like Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, Black Women Code, etc. so that younger generations grow up seeing women, who look just like them, in these tech and engineering careers. The idea is to normalize women in tech for younger generations so that ten or so years from now institutions like Hackbright won’t have to advertise the need for women engineers and what they do. The hope is that girls will be seeking them out.
“The message is anyone can do this,” Geiger said. “The power dynamic has informed us that we’re at a disadvantage and we’re not likely to be selected because we are not like the ones who are in the decision making power, we are a different gender or a different color or a different family background and that shouldn’t be and what I learned about from so much international experience is: we’re social animals. We live in houses and we build these big office buildings but when we start and when we end our day, we are actually very, very social creatures and we assimilate and we do things that are comfortable for us. And so, if the dominant society and the majority of employers and power dynamics have been men that look a certain way, they’re being human beings, to some extent, when they’re hiring people who look like themselves. And we have to educate and we have to build bridges and we have to shine a light on the bias, the embedded bias and the unconscious bias, that goes into that.”
She continued, “Empowerment is about choice, option and control and when girls and women can have the choices and options to earn the best paying salaries out there right now, and to build and design and create solutions in ways that technology enables at speeds that we have never experiences before – technology is a really fast moving industry, finance is slow, government is slow, health you need a lot of background in, education, to be able to make an impact in health, but if you can learn how to build and create technology, there are a lot of choices and options out there for you to have a really positive impact in the world and they happen to be paying more than six figure in salaries… So in terms of what’s hot in the job market, if you can skill up in aspects of technology and software engineering, organizations like Hackbright Academy, we are having a new kind of dialogue with employers and we’re building bridges and we’re breaking down stereotypes and we’re breaking down misperceptions and misconceptions about how to get hired and how to succeed in those roles. There’s really a lot of collaboration happening and it’s a really exciting time to be in this space.”
In 1919, just as women were getting the right to vote, it is quite likely that they too felt they were living in a time where it was exciting to be a woman. Up ahead loomed so much change and possibility. Beyond the vote they had aspirations, hopes and faraway dreams for their daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters. All of that which is the rights, privileges and everyday occurrences we take for granted today. This life we live was created on the backbone of women who dreamt for better not just for themselves but for all. This life we know is all we know, so it’s easy for it to not feel extraordinary or something to be grateful for, as we’ve had the pleasure of growing up believing that it just is, it is our expectation, it is our reality. The women in 1919 felt much excitement for their future, but hindsight is 20/20. Looking back through our history books we know that it was many, many years before women began climbing up the legs of power. The vote did not grant an overnight reversal of long standing, heavily clutched values and prejudices. But would any of us go back and tell those women to give up?
Decades later in a world of so much more change, acceptance and opportunity, we realize that we still have a way to go. Hackbright Academy, institutions like it, companies that partner and work with them and the nationwide groups of women promoting the education and placement of women in STEM related fields seem to be our modern suffragettes. The statistics may be disheartening but it gives them only more reason to keep going on with their mission. Imagine a few decades from now what our granddaughters and great-granddaughters will be able to take for granted. It’s sure to be an exciting time for them to just be.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Lioness.