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Celebrating International Women’s Day 2020

“I like to learn. That’s an art and a science.” Katherine Johnson

Equal rights for women has come a long way since the first International Women’s Day on March 8, 1908. First-wave feminism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tackled discrimination on the basis of sex in many locations, on many issues. The culmination of this phase of feminism is normally considered to be the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920, but there was more than just voting rights in the air at the turn of the century. Society was still getting used to the idea of
women in higher education. Even the simple act of public speaking by a woman was looked down upon as a result of Victorian-era mores. You hear the term ‘disruption’ thrown around a lot here in Silicon Valley, but it’s hard to understate the positive disruption accomplished by first-wave feminists.

When Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918 battles had already been fought and won that enabled her to pursue an education. She still faced an uphill battle with respect to her education (her hometown only offered public education for African-American students up to the eighth grade), as well as ongoing racism, sexism, segregation and more. Johnson countered these challenges with drive, fearlessness, and brilliance. She was also aided by the mentorship of mathematicians Angie Turner King and William Schieffelin Claytor.

To honor Katherine Johnson, who passed away last month at age 101, we reached out to a few women in the Udemy community: an instructor, a company leader, and three students for their thoughts on women in technology. Their thoughts are below, but one consistent response from all three was the importance of mentorship; both acting as a mentor to others and seeking out mentors. So as you rightly celebrate the accomplishments of Katherine Johnson, remember also the contributions of Angie Turner King and William Schieffelin Claytor.

We posed our questions to Madhu Venkatesh, Director of Platform Engineering at Udemy and Best-Selling Udemy Instructor and Developer Angela Yu. We also reached out to a few different Udemy students including Rachel, Allegra, and Steph.

What’s your advice for women looking to enter the field of technology?

Madhu: First, you don’t need a Computer Science degree to enter the field of technology; technology is everywhere. There are many different types of roles in technology companies. Plus, this is the best time to be a woman in the tech industry. Diversity is a strength and companies are beginning to realize it.

Second, Don’t let the media scare you away with all the gender inequality stories about technology. Yes, it happens, but people of all genders are primarily unbelievably generous and supportive. I have been very lucky in my career to meet amazing people and amazing leaders, both men and women, who have been generous with their time, generous with their advice, and helped me to stretch myself in directions I did not think were possible.

Lastly, EQ is more important than IQ. Colleges focus on knowledge and facts, which is great, but every business is about people. Early on in your career, build your Emotional Intelligence skills. So much in business is based on EQ, not IQ, and much of that comes from listening and understanding your own relationships with others and how they perceive you.

Angela: Give things a try, even if they scare you. I’ve worked in technology and I’ve worked in surgery; some of the most male-dominated fields out there. But there’s nothing special about me; just the willingness to try and the motivation to do it.

Allegra: Go where you are celebrated. Choose organizations that support diversity and women in technology.

Steph: Combine your studies with personal projects and post about your learning journey on Twitter. I recommend #100DaysOfCode and #CodeNewbie

What are your thoughts on mentorship?

Madhu: I have seen that women will stay in the technology industry longer if they have a female mentor. I see many strong women engineers turn to other areas early in their careers, because they feel they cannot compete with the men. Or, they stagnate in lower levels of management because they do not have enough first-hand experience managing large-scale technology projects. I have personally mentored women engineers and I try to keep them in their technical roles for a while, and I have seen many succeed with the right guidance and encouragement from female mentors. Be that mentor to the next person. Pay it forward.

Angela: When I was younger I really struggled to find a female role model because I didn’t have access to the Internet. But now I know about people like Sara Blakey, who founded Span, or Margaret Hamilton, who wrote code that took man to the moon.

The truth of the matter is that STEM is hard. Engineering degrees are hard. Both men and women struggle through them. The key is that we need more female role models; people who can inspire girls to persevere in the face of hardship.

Rachel: Finding a community of like-minded women is really important. Look up local coding groups or meet-ups and go, even if you feel like you don’t know enough to be there! It’s one of the most useful ways to learn and also meet other women in the same position as you. If there are no groups close to you, you can use Twitter or LinkedIn to reach out to other women in tech and build your own community.

Relax and remember that everyone learns at a different pace. If you are struggling with a topic, it’s not that you aren’t capable of understanding it, learning new concepts just takes time!