ORLANDO, Florida — Melinda Gates handed Mehul Smriti Raje an award for her work supporting other women in technology Wednesday.
Raje, a Harvard graduate student from Patna, India, says she had long dreamed of meeting Gates after watching the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invest in the health-care system in her home city.
Raje grew up in a supportive household — one that emphasized education. She was encouraged to dream big, and was mostly unaware of gender biases until her first co-ed classes in college. Although the unfairness angered her at first, it inspired her to act. Raje formed an interest group for women coders in college and then started a YouTube channel featuring women dominating in their fields.
Raje received the Student of Vision ABIE Award at the 2017 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Orlando. The award goes to young women building technologies reflective of society, according to AnitaB.org.
An annual report from AnitaB.org found women currently make up 22.95 percent of the country’s tech workforce, up 1.21 percent from last year. But the percentage of women decreases dramatically when you look at leadership roles. Just 15.1 percent of U.S. tech executives are women, according to the report.
Gates tweeted Wednesday, “It’s time the world starts recognizing that the next @BillGates might not look anything like the last one,” referencing her Microsoft co-founder husband.
Raje is still learning about the climate female technologists face in the U.S. She started her studies in computational science and engineering at Harvard a month ago, and plans to continue advocating for other women. She is most interested in building technologies that could change lives.
Here is more from my conversation with Raje:
How did you become interested in technology?
I feel like there was always an environment at home for learning. The first computer I had at home was when I was about two years old. I did realize I had an aptitude for it when I was in school because I took a lot of computer courses and was doing really well. There was one contest that ranked me 10th in the country. I realized, “This is something that’s not just fun anymore. This is something I could actually look at as a career.”
When did you see there was a gender imbalance in the tech industry?
All through school I was in an all-girls environment, so when I moved to my undergrad, that was my first co-ed education experience. I realized a lot of things are assumed of you just because you belong to a specific gender. That was the first time I began to realize there was a gender imbalance.
How did you feel about that?
At first, angry. I was just as good as the person sitting next to me and maybe even better. I was actually a scholarship student. To be assumed to be not as good as the next person made me angry. It took me a while to channel [that anger] in a specific way.
What made you want to stand up and address the problem?
I saw this and thought, “This is not okay to sort of sit back and take it all in.” It’s just not okay. I feel like things have to move forward from here.
Given your experiences looking at this problem, what do you think could move the needle?
The first step is to believe that you’re good enough. I’ve mostly worked with students, so I feel like there is always this underlying thing that, “Maybe I’m not good enough and that’s why I don’t get the credit for the work that I’m doing.” That’s why a lot of people don’t speak up or attend programming events. I feel like the first step is to acknowledge that what you are doing is relevant and important.
And you’ve been continuing your gender diversity work at Harvard?
I’ve only been at Harvard for a month, so I’m looking at programs where I can possibly give my two cents. I have this YouTube channel featuring women doing well in their domains. I would definitely like to continue that, but on a more professional note. For me media has been a big influence on my life because I watched The Matrix and I saw Trinity and said, “That’s someone I want to be like.” The media has such a wide reach and such a strong impact, it’s important to project women as somebody taking center stage and making decisions. I would definitely like to spend some of my time doing that.
What do you think are the biggest issues facing the tech industry today?
There are a lot of internal biases that creep in. It’s important to identify when you are biasing your opinions because a lot of people are sexist and they don’t know it. I feel like they don’t necessarily want to be that way, but it’s just engrained. A very simple example would be if you are going for a smoke or going for a coffee. If there are a lot of men colleagues, they will probably go out for a smoke and that’s a bonding period for them. If it’s a woman, and they don’t smoke, they’re never going to get that time with the bosses or male colleagues.
Do you have any concerns about entering the workforce, especially in Silicon Valley?
Luckily for me, I don’t have much knowledge of what the biases are like. I would like to go there unassuming of anything. I feel like sometimes it’s good to not know too much because if I read too much, I will be worried about it. But it’s always good to be aware.
What do you tell younger women?
I would say diversity initiatives are so important and there is a lot of opposition everywhere. There was a lot of opposition when I was doing this in college. They said, “This is dividing people.” I feel like it’s just a specific interest group, so if you go by that logic, you’re not going to have any interest groups. You’re not going to have a group for people interested in reading, or writing or anything. It’s basically just a bunch of women coding. It’s not like I’m trying to separate people. It’s just about people coming together and sharing ideas. I feel like it’s okay to have opposition, but it’s a good thing to have a clear idea of what you want. If you can encourage one other person to get into technology, I feel like that’s a big deal.
Did that opposition come from peers or teachers?
It was mostly my peers. There’s always this big gender debate happening all the time. I feel like everybody has a different perspective and that’s all right and dependent on where you are coming from. It’s always good to have a conversation with the perspective of expanding your own knowledge.
Do you notice cultural differences between working in India and the U.S. workforce?
I feel like diversity has a very different dimension here than it does in India. It was more about the gender in India. Here it is about a lot of other things. Something I have learned ever since I’ve come to the U.S. is gender fluidity, which in India was a nonexistent concept. Working here has given me a much broader perspective of diversity. Whatever diversity initiatives I work on, they are going to be more inclusive, including every different kind of group. I feel like the diversity understanding I had has completely evolved.
Why is it important to have more diversity in the tech sector?
We are all consuming technology equally. Everyone has a smartphone, so when you are actually creating that smartphone, why not reflect the people who are using it? Isn’t it going to be a much better idea if you take inspiration from the very people using your technology?
This story is part of GroundTruth’s “Women in Tech Leadership” reporting fellowship, produced with support from the Eos Foundation.