Succeeding As A Woman In Tech: An Evening With Tracy Chou

Succeeding As A Woman In Tech: An Evening With Tracy Chou

Tracy Chou, a software engineer at Pinterest and outspoken advocate for diversity in tech, spoke Monday night at the Gates Computer Science Building at a talk sponsored by Stanford Women in Computer Science. She has been featured in Wired, Vogue, Mother Jones, The Muse, and The New York Times for her advocacy for diversity in tech.

While studying to receive her BS in electrical engineering and MS in computer science from Stanford, Chou interned at Google, Facebook, and RocketFuel. After graduation she worked at Quora and now Pinterest, joining both in their early stages. In October 2013, Chou wrote a blog post titled “Where Are the Numbers?” calling for statistics on women in tech. Soon afterwards, she created a Github repository to share these numbers; by August 2015 it had statistics on over 200 firms.

Here are some key takeaways from Chou’s talk:

Far more men than women work in tech.

The percentage of women majoring in computer science has been declining. In the early 1980s women earned about 37% of computer science degrees; this percentage fell to 18% in 2013. The problem extends beyond engineering to other parts of the tech world. Perhaps most shocking is that in a study of 71 venture capital firms, women comprised only 8% of the senior investment teams.

Diversity is important because tech companies create products that men and women use everyday.

The creators of these products should understand the needs of their users.

The consequences of having few women developers can be almost absurd sometimes; Apple’s HealthKit blatantly omitted a period tracking feature. Unsurprisingly, only 20% of engineers at Apple are female. Most software is created by white and Asian males but their users are incredibly diverse. Engineers should be as well.

It can be difficult for women to enter tech even when everything is stacked in their favor.

Tracy Chou was the daughter of two software engineers; she went to high school in Mountain View and college at Stanford. Despite everything being in her favor, she was still discouraged by her classmates in CS 107 who constantly talked about how little time the assignments took them. She was shocked when her professor asked her to be a TA for the class.

Gender quotas can actually increase the quality of the workforce by attracting better job applicants.

Contrary to claims that imposing quotas “lowers the bar” and results in companies hiring less-qualified applicants, Chou cited Stanford research that found that since gender quotas increased the number of women applying for the job, the quality of applicants did not suffer. Furthermore, when qualified women and other minorities read job descriptions that didn’t seem tailored to a white male, they were more likely to apply.

You’re better than you think you are.

When Chou began grading 107 assignments after starting as a TA, she realized that her classmates’ boasts didn’t match the quality of their work. Don’t be discouraged by people who talk a big game; keep chugging on. They may not be as masterful as they portray themselves.

Working at a small company can get you hands-on mentorship.

CEO Adam d’Angelo helped Chou, one of the first engineers at Quora, debug her code. She rapidly improved at development.

Focus on your career first before diversity work. Get engineering credentials so people will take you seriously.

Chou emphasized that grades and degrees can be especially important for females in tech. When someone questioned her technical ability, she could point to the fact that she graduated in the top 5% of her class. If you are close to finishing your PhD but receive another intriguing opportunity, finish your PhD. Focus on your academics and career before diversity activism.

Photo credit: Sydney Morning Herald

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