Exago Women on Pursuing STEM
This article was originally published on October 10, 2017. It has since been updated to include stories from two new members of the Exago team.
Each year, on the second Tuesday of October, people around the world observe Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of women’s achievements in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Journalist and social technologist Suw Charman-Anderson founded the day of recognition eight years ago in response to “online discussions about the lack of women on stage at tech conferences,” and now the holiday inspires debates, presentations, film screenings, and other events devoted to exploring the STEM gender gap.
Ada Lovelace is credited with being the “first computer programmer” because the notes she appended to her translation of Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage (1842) nearly triples the length of the original document, are more extensive than Babbage’s own notes, and were the first to be published. She was lifelong friends with Babbage, who once called her “an enchanted math fairy” in a letter to physicist Michael Faraday. Her notes paved the way for Alan Turing’s seminal research a century later.
When I learned about Ada Lovelace Day, I found myself curious to know whether those of my female coworkers with technical backgrounds had struggled to find footing in male-dominated fields, whether they’d faced discrimination on account of their sex. I’m female, but I majored in English Language and Literature, so my experiences don’t really apply here. (Fun fact: Ada Lovelace’s mother expressly discouraged her from studying literature for fear that she would take after her philandering poet father, Lord Byron.) I’d come across horror stories of women struggling to be taken seriously in STEM departments and workplaces, but I had no sense of how close to home those stories might be. So I asked.
First I talked to Brittany Lackner, currently our company’s sole female software developer. She started working for Exago in February of 2016 as an intern while she was still a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) studying Computer and Systems Engineering. She’d drive down to Kingston from Albany once a week, fix issues, help tackle technical support tickets, and generally familiarize herself with the application code. In June of 2016, she finished her degree and became a full-time employee, graduating quickly from issue fixes to feature development. Because of Brittany, Exago BI supports Google Maps visualizations and, as of v2017.2, features a new and enhanced dashboard designer.
Though Brittany loved Legos and puzzles as a child, she didn’t originally picture herself turning those interests into a profession. Like Lady Wentworth with Ada, Brittany’s parents played a major role in steering their daughter towards the sciences.
“I have a memory of being in Kindergarten,” Brittany recounts. “They had us drawing pictures of what we wanted to be when we grew up. I drew an artist and showed it to my mom, who took one look and said, ‘Oh no, you don't want to be an artist. They don't make any money.’ I didn’t know what else to do, so I drew a teacher instead cause that's what my mom was. She told me I didn’t want to be a teacher either.”
Brittany’s parents nurtured her interest in art while simultaneously setting her sights on an economically prosperous future that would apply her aptitude for problem-solving. “They always bought me whatever art supplies I wanted,” she says. Sure enough, around the time she got accepted to RPI’s School of Engineering, she was putting the finishing touches on a five-by-eight-foot painting of a rock-climbing t-rex she planned to give her climbing gym. So while they supplied her with paint and canvas, they also enrolled her in a Lego Mindstorms robotics camp when she was twelve.
It was this camp, not the eight-week Women in STEM summer camp she would attend years later, that had the greatest impact on her professional aspirations. “Something just clicked with me at that camp,” Brittany reflects. “It was a lot of fun, and it gave me early exposure to thinking about how programming works.”
"Something just clicked with me at that camp. It was a lot of fun, and it gave me early exposure to thinking about how programming works."
Lego Mindstorms kits pair plastic building blocks with programmable software and arose from technology developed at the MIT Media Lab. The toy and its educational counterpart, Lego Mindstorms for Schools, is named after Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (1993), a pedagogical monograph by MIT professor Seymour Papert, who co-invented the Logo programming language. Whether or not she realized it at the time, Brittany’s formative experience at this Lego camp was the product of decades-long research into teaching young minds the fundamentals of computer science.
Despite RPI’s 70-30 male-to-female gender ratio and the even more male-skewed demographics of the CS department, Brittany never had cause to be concerned about her sex. “I honestly never saw, felt, or perceived the gender disparity at RPI,” she says. “I occasionally heard about it from other people, but I never experienced it personally.” The only times she’d even realize she was the only woman in the room were when the topic of conversation would turn to things like facial hair. For Brittany, Ada Lovelace Day is about recognizing the legacy she’s inherited from the men and women who helped make it possible for her to sail through school and into the workplace unencumbered by gender stereotypes.
Exago’s only female Sales Engineer, Emma Williams, progressed through the mathematics program Marist College in a similarly unimpeded fashion. Like Brittany, Emma joined Exago as an intern well before her graduation date. Hired as a member of the Support team, she quickly became the driving force behind Exago’s Support Lab webinar series, which has since supplanted the company’s older training webinars. She transitioned into the Sales Engineer role upon graduation in June of 2017 and now offers technical guidance to prospective clients during product demonstrations and evaluations.
Not only was her graduating class the largest graduating class of math majors in Marist history, it also boasted more graduating female math majors than male math majors overall. “So we were kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum,” says Emma, referring to the gender ratios most would expect in a college math program. “The girls were really running the math department. We ran the math club. The president was female, the vice president I believe was female. It was very female-driven, and I didn't feel any animosity.”
Unlike Brittany’s parents, Emma’s didn’t make a special effort to guide her toward a STEM career. (Emma discovered her love of math through an AP Calculus teacher in high school.) Rather, Emma’s parents focused on enabling her hobbies, even if it called for bending some gender rules. “I wanted to play on boys' soccer teams when I was little cause there wasn't a spring girl's team,” Emma explains. She began playing soccer competitively at the age of four and grew up with books on Mia Hamm on her bookshelf. “My parents said yes. I went to all the practices and was treated no differently, even though I was the only girl on the team.”
So far, Emma’s only STEM-related sexist encounter occurred in a college computer science course she had to take for her major. She was one of maybe five women in a class of about twenty-five students, and the professor was handing back a quiz. “I ended up getting the top score, and he—in front of the entire class—berated the entire set of boys for letting a girl beat them on a quiz, saying they were never going to make it in this field if a girl in college was beating them because this was a male-driven field."
"[He]...berated the entire set of boys for letting a girl beat them on a quiz, saying they were never going to make it in this field if a girl in college was beating them because this was a male-driven field."
Emma recognizes that the sexist actions of one professor don’t necessarily reflect the values of the department as a whole, but she can imagine them deterring a female CS student. “I was kind of in shock. I'd never experienced anything like it, so I was very taken aback.” She didn’t speak to the department or in any way call attention to the incident. She just resolved to work harder and get the best grade on the next quiz, too. (She did.)
“We have Ada Lovelace Day to honor the people who didn't (or don’t) have it as easy as Brittany and I did,” says Emma. “I think that's something that we shouldn't forget. I think that's a progression in history that needs to be documented and celebrated each year.”
Alexis Ricci joined the Exago Support team earlier this year after studying Mathematics and Computer Science at SUNY New Paltz. She’d been passionate about math and science as a girl and came to excel at both subjects come middle school. When her teachers recommended her for the advanced math and science track, though, they encountered opposition from the administration.
“I remember being told by my middle school principal that, for no feasible reason, I couldn’t go,” she says. Both her parents and teachers fought the administration on her behalf, but she was never granted admission into the program, nor was an explanation for the decision ever offered.
When Alexis entered 9th grade, she told her algebra teacher, Jessica Torok (currently the Vice Principal at Rondout Valley High School), what had happened. Torok pulled some strings with her department and with the guidance office in order to permit Alexis to take two math courses simultaneously. “I ended up not only keeping pace with the students in the advanced track in my sophomore year but also surpassing some of them in my senior year.”
In some ways, her middle school brush with sexism in STEM prepared her for what lay ahead. At a college recruitment meeting, she watched as the recruiters positioned themselves with their backs to her, the only woman in the room, and later brushed her off when she went up to talk to them and pass along her resume.
“It’s difficult to know the correct route to take in a severely male dominated field,” Alexis explains. “You have to be demanding and unafraid to speak up just to get what you deserve, but you also have to find the correct balance. Otherwise people write you off as ‘too emotional.’”
"Figuring out the hardest problem is the most satisfying feeling; always strive for that satisfaction."
One place Alexis found support was among her peers. Although she would routinely be one of four or so women in her specialized math courses, she and her classmates bonded over difficult problems during study groups. “It didn’t matter that I was one of the only women in the study group because we all worked together to learn.”
Unfortunately, she wasn’t always shown that same respect by her professors. One in particular would routinely shame her and other female students for asking questions about mathematical theories. It would seem he had a reputation for doing so because when Alexis brought this to the attention of another professor, she recounts, “he already knew who I was going to mention before I said his name.”
For Alexis, Ada Lovelace Day is a valuable opportunity to bring women’s contributions in STEM to the fore and balance their absence in mainstream education. She urges women interested in exploring STEM fields to “not ever let anyone make you feel stupid for not understanding difficult topics right away or for asking questions. Questions are the only way you will gather the knowledge you need. Figuring out the hardest problem is the most satisfying feeling; always strive for that satisfaction.”
Allyson Finck joined Exago as a Support Analyst the same day Alexis did, in early June of this year. She transitioned to her STEM career from a background in business administration and marketing, putting herself through General Assembly’s coding bootcamp. She was pleased to find the gender ratio at GA balanced, both among faculty (many of whom had graduated from the program) and students. “It was nice to be able to talk to the female teachers about switching into a STEM industry,” she says.
Though she chose Business as her field of study in college, Allyson has long been interested in the sciences, particularly astronomy, animal science, engineering, architecture, and computer science. Her desire to research anything she didn’t understand was nurtured and encouraged by her grandfathers, both of whom were engineers at IBM. Though she never felt singled out for liking science and being female, she did notice how few other girls also enjoyed “writing fake reports about polar bears and environmental science.”
Before making the choice to pick up programming, Allyson had ascended the ranks at Target, where she began as an intern and after only two years found herself a Logistics/Operations Executive, the only female Logistics Executive in the region.
“I remember hearing comments all the time about how this was a male-dominated area and how I must feel ‘so special’ to be excelling in it,” she says. “Female executives often found themselves in Human Resources and Clothing/Baby departments. Trying to inspire other women in the company to move to these more operations-focused positions was somewhat challenging.”
Intimidation, Allyson suspects, plays a significant role in deterring women from exploring male-dominated industries, departments, and positions. It can be uncomfortable to go against the grain, and the friction can cause women to question the decisions they've made about their futures.
Still, she thinks it’s never too late to try. Allyson’s decision to transition to programming pays off every day she comes into the support office and learns something new about computer science. “Don’t be afraid to defy standards, and never feel like you are any less simply because you picked a different path previously.”
“Don’t be afraid to defy standards, and never feel like you are any less simply because you picked a different path previously.”
This year, Donna Strickland became the third woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in physics, inspiring women and girls all over the world to play with lasers. Allyson feels the purpose of Ada Lovelace Day is to foster its own obsolescence: “Hopefully, one day, we’ll live in a world where women have just as many awards and achievements in STEM fields as men do, and special recognition will no longer be necessary.”
To all programmers—male and female—interested in working for a small-and-growing tech company on a product that could very well be called an Analytical Engine, drop us a line, even if we’re not currently hiring in your department. Let’s keep in touch.