Capitalist STEM culture

Cracking the Code Ceiling

At nine years old, I was in love with words. I spent most days curled up in bed, reading books my dad had checked out for me at our public library. With each story I connected with, my love of literature grew. Yet as I grew up, I was forced to face the reality that I needed to pursue a career in STEM to survive in the Silicon Valley.

One of these moments was at a dinner party my family was hosting one night where a family friend asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. He always gave me sweets or offered me advice, and I looked up to him. I told him about my dreams of becoming a writer. “But what will be your day job?” He cocked his head backward, laughing dismissively as everyone at the table joined him. He patted me on the head and said,“Become a doctor instead, darling.”

Growing up, I began to realize how capitalism created an unhealthy push toward pursuing technology and STEM. I remember hearing my parents tell our old nanny, who was struggling to afford a rent, to look for another job. She was like family to me and my brother –– she drove us from school and practices most days and watched television with us if our parents went out. Despite this, my parents encouraged her to leave her job with us and pursue a separate career in STEM so she could fully support herself and her family.

Listening to their conversation from the hallway, I was crushed. When I later asked my mom why our nanny had to leave, she said, “Because, Riya, being in STEM is the easiest way to survive in today’s world.” The following day, as my dad drove me to school, I tuned into NPR and listened to them discussing the dangers of capitalism. I had no idea what capitalism was or how STEM played into it.

Flash forward to my senior year, and I began understanding how capitalism influenced everything around me. Growing up in the Silicon Valley, I saw how people with STEM careers were able to live extravagantly and comfortably. My classmates and I had easier lives because our parents were technical venture capitalists and engineers we DoorDashed lunch to school and went to France for spring break. On the other hand, people who were not at the forefront of Silicon Valley STEM, like my old nanny, struggled to get by.

I was frustrated when I started seeing these inequalities. Above all, I was angered because we knew how privileged we were, yet we didn’t use our privilege or access as opportunities to address these inequities. Instead, I felt like many people around me were still rushing toward STEM solely for capital. Even my 14-year-old little brother asked when I would start interning at a big tech company so I could afford things like the $160 Allbirds. Kids like him weren’t reading books and dreaming of becoming writers like I was at that age instead, they wanted to be Mark Zuckerberg.

When I first came to UC Berkeley, I expected to meet people who wanted to use technology to solve important problems in the world. But it seemed like many people were also influenced by this overwhelming pressure to focus on financial gain. When I told my friend about how I wanted to help people with STEM, he responded, “Yeah, but aren’t you so excited to be 30 with a disposable income? That’s the only thing motivating me through CS here.”

“Really?” I thought to myself. Here we were, studying algorithms and machine learning at a world-renowned university ideas that I couldn’t wait to explore each day in class. And yet all people could talk about was how much money they would have after this. I was baffled and saddened.

More than anything, I felt that the emphasis on pursuing STEM for money corrupted the movement that encourages women to become scientists and engineers. At a gender diversity in STEM panel I attended, I raised my hand to ask how someone could use their technical career to make an impact on the world. The panelists who answered mentioned how much recruiters were seeking out young women interested in technology, and how I could work my way into a top-12 company and provide a stable life for myself as an independent young woman. “You can always do charity on the side,” she said, shooting me an easy smile.

I was disappointed by her response. I realized that these initiatives to promote inclusion in STEM were just as capitalistic as the Silicon Valley mentality I fought to leave behind — they were just covered in bright pink decorations and sparkly posters of famous female scientists. At other similar initiatives and conferences I attended, I felt like they were mainly telling us how to leverage the diversity we carried for capitalistic gain.

I’m tired of filling out identity charts at Women in STEM events. I no longer want to try to commodify myself into an object that companies like Amazon want. And I no longer want to see STEM as a mere stepping stone to a stable life. I want to be driven toward pursuing technology to create an impact, not amass more wealth. I encourage everyone in STEM to consider whether we are shaping the world, or simply letting capitalism shape us.


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