Fatma Mili, dean of the College of Computing and Informatics, moderates conversation with Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, at the Civic Speaker Series. Photo by Joseph Leocadio.

On April 26, Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of nonprofit organization Girls Who Code, addressed the UNC Charlotte community as part of the university’s Civic Speaker Series. This Bank of America sponsored lecture series was created to bring distinguished leaders to UNC Charlotte to engage in discussions of regional and national importance.

The event was held in the Popp Martin Student Union theater. The audience, primarily women, filled two-thirds of the seating area.

Girls Who Code aims to support and increase the number of women in computer science. The organization is working to close the gender gap in technology and change the image of what a programmer looks like and does.

Fatma Mili, dean of the College of Computing and Informatics, moderated the conversation with Saujani.

“I was more than honored to lead the discussion with Reshma,” said Mili. “The issue of increasing the percentage of women in computing is extremely important for us. Girls Who Code serves as a pipeline to reaching them because it reaches across all ethnic groups and socioeconomic groups.”

Saujani, also an established author and lawyer, is the first Indian American woman to run for U.S. Congress. Thanks in large part to her political roots, Girls Who Code was born back in 2012.

During Saujani’s run for U.S. Congress, she noticed that schools along her campaign route lacked girls in computer science classrooms. The organization runs programs during the academic year teaching high school girls computing skills like programming, robotics and web design.

“Only 10,000 girls graduated with computer science degrees last year, of which less than 0.1 percent were black and Latino,” said Saujani. “Since I started Girls Who Code, I’ve mandated that half of my classrooms are filled with girls below the poverty line, and half of them are black and Latino because it is very important to be honest about the inequity that we have in this country and the opportunity that I have as a leader to change that.”

Saujani challenged the audience to think critically about the societal pressures that young girls and women face on a daily basis.

“We don’t like strong women in our country and at the same time we really love alpha men,” stated Saujani. “It doesn’t matter what they say or how they behave; we see that as leadership. I think this has happened with computing as well. Our media has birthed a ‘brogrammer,’ even though the first programmer was a woman. We intentionally and culturally shifted the truth to a reality that we wanted to put forth. There are T-shirts that say ‘I’m allergic to Algebra’ and you don’t see this in other countries like India, China and Nigeria. That’s why the United States has such an imbalance in terms of gender in the workplace.”

After half an hour, Mili accepted questions from the audience. Saujani’s biggest advice to young female leaders was to stop chasing perfection. She explained it’s okay to screw up a little here and there.

“If you haven’t failed at anything then you haven’t done anything yet, so take a big risk,” she said. “Open yourself up to critical feedback. If I give a speech or something, I want people to tell me how I could’ve done it better. I always want to live right there at the point of getting better.”

Jordan Harris, associate director in the Department of Community Relations, played a key role in organizing the lecture.

“It was a great opportunity for our students, faculty and staff and even community members to come out and hear the importance of women leadership roles and the role that we all play in making sure that women are confident and feel secure in the job place,” she said.

Harris is enthusiastic about more speaker series to come and encourages the student body to take advantages of the opportunities.

“We would love to see a larger student presence because the speakers that we’re bringing are relevant and timely,” she said.