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Deleting disparity in computer science
During a collegiate coding competition in her native India, computer science student Mehul Smriti Raje noticed something striking—she was the only woman in the room.
She knew men far outnumbered women in computer science at universities around the world; her program at the Manipal Institute of Technology had only one female student for every five male students. But that experience threw the disparity into even sharper relief.
Raje, who recently received the Student of Vision ABIE Award from the Anita Borg Institute for her dedication to support, promote, and inspire young women in tech, knew she had to do something to attract more women to the field.
“When the numbers are like that, people tend to assume that a certain section is not showing up because they are just not good at it,” said Raje, M.E ’19, a student in the Computational Science and Engineering Master’s Program offered by the Institute for Applied Computational Science (IACS) at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “That is something that really affected me, because I entered college as a scholarship student. I thought I was just as good, if not better, than the next person in my class.”
She launched Women Techmakers Manipal, a council to bring female students together to discuss the challenges they face in a male-dominated field, develop computer science skills, and offer support and mentorship to each other.
A chapter of the international Google Women Techmakers program, Techmakers Manipal hosted programming games and competitions, career-building sessions, demos, hack-a-thons, and talks by women working in the field. The organization quickly grew from three participants to 35, and now draws more than 200 students to events.
Raje felt gratified by the group’s success, but she still wasn’t satisfied. Women Techmakers Manipal helped women at her school fight against the gender disparity in computer science, but Raje wanted to inspire a larger group of girls.
“When I was younger, I heard of Bill Gates, and later Mark Zuckerburg, but I never heard of any famous women in computer science. I didn’t even know who Grace Hopper was until I was in undergrad,” she said. “Media representation does have an impact on kids. If you see someone on screen, you aspire to be that person.”
So Raje directed “The Spectacular Female,” a YouTube series featuring stories about outstanding accomplishments of women in diverse fields including computer science, architecture, and business. The project’s goal was not only to inspire young Indian girls to ignore stereotypes and follow their dreams, but also to provide a platform for coaching and mentorship.
Since enrolling in the CSE program this fall, Raje has already begun looking to continue her efforts towards encouraging women in tech. She plans to expand her YouTube project, and is also brainstorming new mentorship programs that could reach even more young women on the Indian subcontinent.
Her research interests, too, are focused on using her computer science skills to help others reach their full potential. Raje, who struggled for years with a deeply introverted personality, is interested in building emotionally intelligent systems that understand users’ thought processes to help people, especially women, overcome communication and collaboration roadblocks that can hold them back.
For Raje, all these efforts culminated when she received the Student of Vision ABIE Award from one of her heroines, Melinda Gates, during the Grace Hopper Conference.
“Everything I’ve done in my undergrad is because I felt very passionate about it,” she said. “To be honored for doing something you feel so strongly about is incredibly rewarding.”
Giving the keynote address to a crowd of 18,000 people and meeting some female titans of tech was a dream come true, she said, but also a keen reminder that there is still much work to do to level the playing field in tech.