Not your unicorn

Cracking the Code Ceiling

He paused to look at me, slicing open the breakfast he had ordered with the edge of his knife. “What are you doing this summer?” he asked. I told him about the software company I was going to intern for. “Have you thought about Google?” he asked, his blue eyes glistening. I shook my head, stifling an eye roll. “I heard that you can make a ton of money, and that it provides a lot of job security.”

I was annoyed. I was tired of people asking me if I was interested in working at Google, Facebook or some other highly ranked company dazzling in its worldwide impact — both positively and negatively. It seemed as though everyone I knew — classmates, friends, family friends — was obsessed with the idea of working at one of these major tech companies.

As I sat down with my friend for lunch one day, I remember them asking, “Did you know that they give you free massages and paid vacations at companies like Instagram?” I thought back to the time I had visited one of my family friends at the Instagram headquarters, admiring the array of cafes and white reflective surfaces that dazzled without the presence of sunlight. As she talked about the projects that she was working on, I was disappointed that the work didn’t seem to be creating real change in the world.

I fell in love with computer science after attending a summer program on software development, where I developed and shipped my own iPhone application. I was always interested in solving real-world problems, and I found an important tool to do so through mobile applications.

And yet, as I looked over the code she was showing me for building the Instagram feed, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. I wanted to create applications that directly solved major social issues, not optimize how social media posts were organized. I realized how much more captivated I was with the idea of working at a high-profile tech company, laden with employee benefits and the promise of a richer life than the reality of it.

I was letting myself be dictated by the pressures around me to pursue STEM for what I believed to be less fulfilling reasons — money, prestige, reputation. More than anything, I became increasingly overwhelmed by the encouragement I received to pursue software simply because of my gender.

When I first mentioned that I wanted to be a software engineer, I remember a family friend telling my mom how set my future would be because of my decision. “Being a woman and an engineer is one of the most rare things,” he said into the phone.“Her success is guaranteed.”

That isn’t supposed to matter, I thought to myself. I’m doing this because it’s something I love and because I want to create change, not because I want to stand out for aspects of my identity I can’t control, such as my ethnicity or my gender.

After my family went to my dad’s college reunion at IIT — the Indian Institute of Technology — where my dad studied electrical engineering, I remember asking my dad why there were no women present. My dad sighed, turning the steering wheel, “There were barely any women when I went to school — I think maybe eight in our class total.” I expected that there would be few female engineers when my dad was in college, but I didn’t think the number would be that low.

“That’s why you have to be an engineer, Riya,” my mom said, turning around in the car to smile at me. “Even better if you’re a fashionable one,” she continued. I thought of one of her female colleagues, an engineer whom my mom always admired for the flowy skirts and high-waisted jeans she sported at work. “Yes, feminine engineers are the rarest,” my dad said in agreement.

I don’t want to be rare. I don’t be want to be tokenized, valued to a heightened degree and put on a pedestal because of aspects of my identity I was born with or because of the ways I challenge expectations in my field. I want to use technology to solve real-world problems without the pressure of both being a female engineer unicorn or working at the most respectable and prominent companies. I just want to be myself in STEM. And that’s more than enough.

Riya Berry writes the Wednesday blog on being a womxn in color in computer science and technology. Contact her at [email protected].