Women, technology, and fighting underrepresentation: A Bank of America and Girls Who Code story
- Women are underrepresented in tech classrooms and jobs and changing this requires committing deeply, building career paths and providing access to mentors.
- Dive into Bank of America's work with Girls Who Code, an organization that provides young women technical skills and mentors to increase the number of women in computer science.
Representation of women in tech jobs and university degrees has improved steadily over the past few decades, but we are far from reaching equality, particularly when it comes to technology. Women account for 21% of the degrees earned in Computer Science, and in the Big 5 tech companies, only 31% of the employees are women. These statistics worsen as we scrutinize more senior level positions with representation sharply falling off in C-suites and boardrooms.
To their credit, banks have done a better job than tech giants when it comes to gender diversity. But while company-wide representation may have increased, women are still underrepresented in tech-related jobs in the financial industry. The problem of underrepresentation in the tech field is a three-headed hydra and counteracting any one particular aspect without the others leads to less-than-perfect results.
Tech is from Mars: Rene Descartes' philosophy of the “mind-body divide” asserts that the mind deals with logic while the body deals with our baser (animalistic) instincts. The belief that men are rational while women are emotional is tied to this characterization of the mind and body. Since women are considered “emotional”, they are thought to be less-equipped to deal with hard sciences like engineering and computer science. This deeply misogynistic belief hinders women from pursuing careers in STEM. This results in classrooms that don’t have equal representation and cause women to feel like outsiders or imposters.
Lack of mentors: When fewer women pursue science, there are fewer women who can be role models, whether that is in the role of teachers or mentors. Since there are a limited number of senior role models who are women, young girls don't get access to mentors that can provide insights into the real world and act as affirmation of their goals.
A path to success: What use are technical skills if you can’t put them to use? Young girls need access to roadmaps and career guidance that can help them forge their own paths in tech.
Bottom line: When girls feel uncomfortable and foreign in tech classrooms, we get tech departments that are unrepresentative.
Perhaps we have to change the narrative around tech. If we don't have enough women data science students, how will we have enough women chief data science execs?
“You start to realize the problem permeates all the way into early education, and you can't show up in college and try to help someone -- you have to start early,” said Hari Gopalkrishnan, Head of Consumer, Business & Wealth Management Technology at Bank of America.
Building a path forward
Girls Who Code is a non-profit that provides young women access to technical skills and mentors to increase the number of women in computer science. The group organizes tech-based summer Immersion programs and after-school clubs for young girls and non-binary individuals.
But technical skill-building is only part of the equation. Girls Who Code partners with companies like Accenture, Meta, and Bank of America. These corporate partners contribute funds but also shed light on what tech jobs look like in action.
“Offering access to top companies, and opportunities to hear directly from technologists, enables our students to envision a future where they are leaders in the tech industry and build their social capital and networks meaningfully,” said Daniel Voloch, Chief Program Officer at Girls Who Code.
Recently, Bank of America and Girls Who Code organized a half day in-person event called “Industry Immersion Day” at BofA’s One Bryant Park building.
PoV: Girls Who Code
On July 25th, 50-60 participants in Girls Who Code’s Summer Immersion Program went to the 51st floor of Manhattan’s One Bryant Park building and learned how to deal with real-world tech. For example, the girls immersed themselves in a cybersecurity scenario where a singer’s song had leaked, and the girls had to get to the bottom of it. Participants also got a chance to join mentoring circles and talk to Bank of America volunteers and technologists.
The volunteers on site were not only BofA’s women technologists, but some were also graduates of the Girls Who Code program themselves. So the young women had access to women they could look up to, and also women who had been through the paces and knew what it was like to be in their position. These women were able to impart their own learnings from going through the program and currently stand as life-size proof and affirmation of Girls Who Code's mission.
PoV: Bank of America
As a corporate partner, Bank of America’s Hari Gopalkrishnan joined the Girls Who Code board in November of last year. His presence has already lent itself to the strengthening of the program. “Thanks to his support, Bank of America recently hosted tech-forward activations at our 10th anniversary event, CodeFair, which was visited by thousands of people over three days,” said Voloch.
Commitment with action: As an immigrant and electrical engineering graduate who moved into finance, Gopalkrishnan has an appreciation of how tech can open doors and address social issues. “Some of my favorite classes in college were courses like psychology. Philosophy of Education was a class that I loved. So I thought about how you blend technology with the ability to solve human problems and societal problems,” said Gopalkrishnan.
BofA volunteers for Girls Who Code, Ashley Erenburg, software engineer within the Global Information Security team and Samreet Kaur, business analyst within the Global Markets Technology team, have first hand experience of the program and are sharing their knowledge with the current participants.
“I felt like I had to give back to the same community that had given me so much. If it weren't for that one summer program that I had done, I don't know where I would be right now,” said Kaur. When Kaur was still a student in the summer program at GWC, her teaching assistant Ashley Erenburg was hard at work forging a path of her own. Erenburg was a student in GWC’s inaugural program, which eventually led to a TA-ship at the non-profit, where she taught Kaur.
Erenburg then went onto a career at Bank of America. “It has been really nice to watch the program grow over the last 11 years. It's a program that gave me so much and put me on the path to finding a job working in tech. And then I ended up in cybersecurity and it's how I got matched with the bank,” said Erenburg.
Both Kaur and Erenburg are keen to point out how the Girls Who Code program also helps in building networking skills. “In 2017, I was working for GWC as a TA. The girls had a lot of executive speakers come in from the bank that would talk to them about their day to day work. One of those executives stood out to me. He came in so friendly, and he wanted to hear about all the projects they were working on,” said Erenburg.
She added that she reached out to the executive, learned about Bank of America’s Global Information Security internship, applied to it, and is now working in the cybersecurity team of the bank. She thinks it is unlikely that she would have found that information on her own.
Demystifying careers in tech
Erenburg said she really likes emphasizing that students don’t need a background in tech to be able to build a career in cybersecurity. Similarly, Kaur, who has a degree in tech, currently works as a Business Analyst. This approach is important, as it breaks down strongly held misconceptions about the field: you’re only technical if you code everyday, and you can only code if you’ve had formal training.
In reality, technical skills that students learn in a computer science degree or at programs like GWC go beyond building databases and writing algorithms. Students can go onto work in fields like UX Design, Analytics, Ethics, or Communication. Learning how to code teaches the application of logic and problem solving skills.
When viewed this way, computer science becomes more than prowess over a particular tool – it is a mindset. “There's as much to coding in cybersecurity, there's as much to coding in design,” said Gopalkrishnan. In his role as Girls Who Code board member, Gopalkrishnan emphasizes this expanded view of computer science.
Putting in the hours
Whenever large organizations commit themselves to big causes like gender diversity there is a fear that they may be little else to it than marketing. But what is evident from Kaur, Erenburg, and Gopalkrishnan is that a significant part of their time is dedicated to Girls Who Code. These professionals have committed their attention and efforts to the participants. They partake in events like the Immersion Day or CodeFair but also dedicate time to less public activities. For example, they give feedback on the projects that the Girls Who Code participants are working on, and volunteers like Erenburg have been involved with the non-profit in various capacities. Gopalkrishnan on the other hand has organized robotics camps with young women locally, outside the paradigms of GWC.
Moreover, for equal representation in tech to become a reality, young women also need a well-designed career path – a path that can encourage imagination and foster understanding of what a tech career looks like. If you look at this program from Bank of America’s perspective, their deep involvement ensures that the women who go through GWC’s summer Immersion program build the right skills and mindset. Four years down the line, when an applicant appears in the job pool, the bank doesn't have to do reconnaissance to find out the legitimacy of their training. It knows. Its talent pipeline is sorted because it committed early and deeply.
“We don't always look at investments for what they will be for the next six months. But our goals are much broader and bigger in terms of the next 10 years: we want a much more inclusive environment,” Gopalkrishnan added.