By Lila Ibrahim, Chief Business Officer of Coursera
International Women’s Day on March 8th celebrates social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women – and also encourages action to accelerate gender parity across the globe. Follow #WomenInTech throughout this week to see different perspectives on how to close the gender gap in technology from inspiring women who work at and teach on Coursera.
I’m a first generation American, the eldest daughter of immigrants. Growing up in the midwest with olive skin and dark hair posed a lot of cultural challenges in the 1970s, but my parents inspired me to pursue my passions regardless of others’ stereotypes or expectations.
In the evenings, I’d watch as my dad used colored pencils and a drafting board to create intricate designs that would eventually become these beautiful shiny gold things called “chips.” These chips would go into heart pacemakers, helicopters, cars, and more. They would save lives, and help people live their lives. Given my father’s humble background, it was incredible to see how he was contributing to making the world a better place… all with art, math, science, and some of his “dad” magic. That was enough inspiration for me to want to follow in his footsteps and become an electrical engineer.
Four years later, I received my engineering degree from Purdue University. Purdue is ranked #4 in the US for the number of engineering degrees awarded to women, and I had a phenomenal experience there – from ENGR194, a first-year seminar class that invited women alumni to return and share their experiences, to an incredible engineering co-op program that gave me the opportunity to spend 16 months working at Intel in the early ‘90s on the Pentium processor engineering team. Most women in technology, however, do not have these types of opportunities.
Mentorship and networks motivated me to pursue engineering, but today I’m seeing a shift in what drives women to enter technical fields. When I ask women why they wanted to be engineers, their answers often speak more to a personal desire to spur social change – and they believe that STEM is the way to do it. This drive to leverage STEM to have an impact on the world underscores how important it is that women see engineering as an exciting and viable option. So, how can we help the next generation of female scientists and engineers succeed?
Start young, and reinforce often. As a mom of twin kindergarten girls, I’ve tried to instill awareness of engineering as an option. As we go over a bridge, we’ll talk about how engineers helped design and build it. We have weekly “business meetings” where I ask them, “If you were to design an app, what would it be, and why?” Starting young is a way to shape confidence and preferences. So, when my daughters patiently explain to their teachers that engineers create and build things, I realize that regardless of what women choose to pursue, simply understanding that engineering is an option is powerful in itself.
Find strength in communities. Support systems are key to continuously building potential. Like the shift we’ve seen in motivations for pursuing engineering, we’re also seeing a shift in mentoring relationships. The traditional protege model still has merit, but sometimes, a community of guides can serve as a stronger motivator. Inspiration and support can come from multiple communities and areas – from the workplace, to online course forums, to personal networks. These networks can inspire women in STEM to find their true potential and deepen their empowerment together.
Embrace a growth mindset. Like many engineering students, I excelled in high school and college. Until one course in which I got a D. I was shocked, embarrassed, and ashamed. I locked myself in a room and had a breakdown. It was a devastating, yet pivotal moment. With some coaching from my dad, and support from mom, I picked myself up. I learned to ask more questions, seek different perspectives to fully understand the problem, admit when I didn’t understand, and listen better. Taking risks, engaging deeply in experiences, and learning from mistakes is critical, especially in entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial careers. Embrace failure, and all opportunities to learn. It makes a great story about life lessons, and makes you a more well rounded person.
Focus on the outcomes. Engineering is creative, but introductory classes often suck the life out of the subject. Many students lose sight of the bigger picture and find themselves asking why they should continue pursuing engineering. I had those moments, and I know the feeling of wanting to give up. By consistently reminding women of the opportunities they have to make an impact as scientists and engineers, we can strengthen and sustain their sense of purpose.
I feel fortunate to work with many amazing women in technology – all with different backgrounds, and all committed to disrupting the status quo. The most important way that we can help the next generation is by sharing our experiences. Above all, I try to emphasize to women in engineering that they’re fortunate for choosing this path. Going forward as a group, we need to not only support each other, but also consciously build on the foundations we’ve laid to build a smoother, more encouraging path for the next generation of women in STEM fields.
Other blog posts in Coursera’s #WomenInTech series:
- Why Data Science Needs Diversity — Emily Sands, Data Science Manager, Coursera
- “Yes You Can” – Empowering Women Through Education — Priya Gupta, Software Engineer, Coursera
- Finding My Community: From Math Olympiads to Coursera — Colleen Lee, Software Engineer, Coursera
Overcoming Stereotypes in Tech — Richa Khandelwal, Software Engineer, Coursera
- The Unconventional Route to Statistical Inquiry — Jennifer Rose and Lisa Dierker, Professors, Wesleyan University
- The ‘Pipeline Problem’ is Leaky — Christine Alvarado and Mia Minnes, Professors, University of Californa, San Diego
- How can we encourage more women to go into Computer Science? — Colleen van Lent, Lecturer, University of Michigan
- International Women’s Day: Our Weeklong Reflections on Women in Tech — Daphne Koller, President and Co-Founder, Coursera