Looking at the Top in Tech: Virginia Smith

Computer Science Ph.D. student, Virginia Smith, started out in a field where there were quite a lot women.  As an undergraduate, she studied math, a field where there are almost equal numbers of men and women.

Smith finished all of her required math courses in her first two years as an undergrad, and, looking for interesting courses to take, ran across Computer Science and fell in love.  “It’s a great way to take abstract ideas from math and statistics and apply them to real-world problems.”

In Computer Science, Smith felt isolated, though, in a way that she hadn’t in math. Even now, NSF data shows that there are significantly fewer women than men graduating with bachelor’s degrees in computer science: their 2016 data show less than 18% of CS undergraduate degrees are earned by women.

“It’s something I think about a lot,” she says, “Because sometimes people make the argument that computer science is too technical, but then [there are] these other fields;…you can’t argue that math isn’t technical, and there’s almost gender parity there.  I really think it’s more about the history and culture in tech, rather than a fundamental limitation.  Which is a good thing, because then there’s a way to try to change it.”

When Smith came to Berkeley as a computer science graduate student, she began to work on trying to prevent other young women from feeling the same isolation that she had.  A project that she was particularly passionate about was the formation of the Women in Technology Round Table, which she was able to accomplish with the help of UCB alumna Gitanjali Swami and then EECS Department Chair, Professor Tsu-Jae King Liu.

“The group came out of the fact that over the last several years there’s been a lot of press…about how there’s a problem with diversity in tech, but there’s been a lot less discussion about why there’s a problem and how we can try to solve it.”

The problem that Smith identified after hearing a talk by Dr. Swamy is that women have been getting more jobs in tech companies like Google and Facebook and smaller startups, but they have a higher rate of attrition and a much harder time getting into the top tier positions.  The group brings together a number of women who hold executive positions at technology companies.   “The thing that is unique about the round table is that the group of people that we’re meeting with are all leaders in tech, so they’re people who can go back to their institutions and organizations and try to make change with the solutions we’ve developed.”

The group has begun their work by doing a survey and writing a report based on their survey and the background literature on the root causes for the lack of women in technology, particularly in top positions.   Smith feels very encouraged by the tangible work that the roundtable has accomplished in the last year.  Working groups brainstormed ideas at their last meeting in the spring and have taken ideas back to their individual companies and organizations.  Meanwhile, Smith has written an article about the round table’s work and recently published it on Medium.

This coming year, Smith will be filing her dissertation and looking for a job.  She’s not sure yet whether she wants to land in academia or in a tech firm, but either way she’s looking forward to continuing to work to make it possible for women to succeed at the top.

Medium: Women in Technology: How a Handful of Leaders in Tech are Taking Matters into Their Own Hands