Women in Tech: “Aptitude has nothing to do with gender or inborn capabilities”
Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Three years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Jessica Yu, Linux Kernel Developer at SUSE.
A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?
Three years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Jessica Yu, Linux Kernel Developer at SUSE.
Today’s Woman in Tech: Jessica Yu, Linux Kernel Developer at SUSE
Jessica is a Linux Kernel Developer at SUSE who maintains the kernel module loader and helps debug core kernel issues.
In a previous life, she worked on kernel live patching.
When did you become interested in technology?
As a child I was casually interested in technology. I remember picking up some HTML and CSS in order to customize my Neopets store and make some video game fanpages on Geocities, but that was pretty much the extent of it.
I didn’t get seriously interested in programming until university, when I installed Linux on my laptop for the first time. I had only used Windows up until then and was drawn by how much control and flexibility Linux grants its users. It doesn’t box them in a specific setup. You could tweak and control nearly every detail of your system, from the bootloader to the desktop environment and everything else in between. Not only that, you’re encouraged to tinker with these components, understand how they work, and even contribute to their source code! It was the enormity of choice and freedom that drew me into open source and ultimately, a career in technology.
How did you end up in your career path?
I actually intended to major in Psychology or Neuroscience during university.
During my first year I met some classmates that were using Linux, and their customized desktop environments piqued my interest. At that point I had never heard of Linux, and I wanted to learn more about their setups. I was frustrated by Windows’ lack of customizability and decided to switch out of curiosity. Like I mentioned in my previous answer, I was amazed at how much control Linux gives its users. Most components are designed to be tinkered with, and not only that, you are encouraged to contribute and make changes.
I think becoming a Linux user catalysed my interest in operating systems and convinced me to study Computer Science. Eventually it motivated me to write my first patches for the Linux kernel. I found contributing to open source projects a very rewarding experience, which is why I decided to pursue a career in it.
A lot of obstacles I faced mainly had to do with learning programming from scratch. It felt like a lot of CS students had already started programming much earlier. My high school did not offer AP Computer Science every year and it was just not popular or promoted as much as AP Biology or AP Chemistry for example. It just seemed like an inaccessible subject. And as a beginner programmer at the time, Linux kernel development seemed like a lofty and impossible goal.
Not to mention, operating systems was just not as popular a subject as say, web development, so resources to learn about kernel programming seemed more scarce. I was fortunate that The Eudyptula Challenge – a series of programming challenges designed to introduce newcomers to kernel development – launched while I was taking my university’s operating systems course. That gave me a place to start and it provided me with a guided introduction to Linux kernel development.
I was amazed at how much control Linux gives its users. Most components are designed to be tinkered with, and not only that, you are encouraged to contribute and make changes.
Did you receive support from your family and friends? Do you have a role model?
I was fortunate that my family supported my decision to go into the field.
I’m the first one in my family to choose a career in technology. I don’t have one specific role model, but I am grateful to the women in this industry who helped to bring the discussion about diversity and inclusion to the table in the first place.
Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?
I recall a few instances while I was still an undergrad where I felt some hostility and isolation when I decided to apply for the computer science program at my university. I was still a psychology major at the time, and I distinctly remember some classmates doubting my decision. They questioned my ability to handle the field, asking me what’s the most of lines of code I ever written or whether I’ve ever coded in my life (I hadn’t yet, at the time). It was discouraging to be told by them that I was unsuited for the program because I came from a non-technical background, even though I had the willingness to learn programming from scratch.
It’s not an uncommon stereotype that many people majoring in computer science had been programming since they were young. It definitely felt that way during my first year in the program, and I was constantly behind. It was isolating at first, but eventually I met other female classmates that were in the same boat as I was, who were also learning programming for the first time. I was glad that there were people who I could relate to.
Thankfully, I have not had any negative experiences in my professional life. Most colleagues I’ve worked with in my career thus far have been respectful and I feel that my ideas and comments are taken seriously and critiqued fairly based on their merit.
A day in Jessica’s life
I work as a Linux kernel developer at SUSE, a global open source software company. I maintain the module loader in the Linux kernel, which is the part of the kernel that handles inserting modules or drivers into the kernel. A loadable kernel module is a piece of kernel code that can be loaded or unloaded on demand. Kernel modules enable you to extend the functionality of the kernel at runtime without requiring you to reboot. This allows the Linux kernel to be modular, as opposed to one monolithic image that contains all the drivers already built-in.
A typical day involves reviewing patches, applying the patches to my git tree if they’ve been tested and completed the review process, responding to bug reports, sending patches (usually fixes) upstream and backporting fixes and features from upstream to the SUSE kernel trees. Sometimes, when handling a bug report, there would be an interesting kernel core dump to look at and dissect.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I think I’m most proud of getting the hang of Linux kernel development, both from a contributor’s and maintainer’s perspective, and even making it my full-time job. When I was an undergraduate student 5-6 years ago, I remember I could barely compile a working kernel on my own, much less modify it. Looking at the source code for the first time was overwhelming.
I’m proud I’ve gotten over that hurdle and became a regular contributor and reviewer for one of the biggest open source projects in the world.
Why aren’t there more women in tech?
This is a question that social scientists have been trying to answer for a long time, so I’m afraid my response will be a personal opinion at best.
I believe the perception of a field – its culture, the kind of people who work in it, expectations of success in the field – can have a significant impact on one’s decision to pursue it. From my perspective, computer science and engineering are fields that are especially encumbered with stereotypes – more so than other fields than say biology or psychology for instance. It’s no doubt that at least in American pop culture, we regularly encounter the stereotype of the geek male programmer – socially awkward, isolated, but innately brilliant with an obsession with technology. These stereotypes have been reinforced by modern pop culture – from The Big Bang Theory to The IT Crowd to HBO’s Silicon Valley. When I was younger, without having had role models or contact with people in tech, my perception of the field only came from the media. I was not able to visualize myself in tech because I felt I did not fit in with the field’s dominant culture, which also had the reputation of being unapproachable to newcomers and even hostile at times. Even if the stereotypes are untrue, it is difficult to correct public perception.
In addition, societal expectations can be transmitted by role models, peers, parents and relatives. Both socialization and stereotypes can influence whether one sees tech as a viable career path. Growing up, I was no stranger to comments that suggested that computers were for boys and that programming was a masculine job. I’ve heard countless times that girls are just naturally not interested in computer science, as if it were an inborn characteristic. And then you have children’s books like “Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer”, where Barbie admits that although she’s creating the designs for a computer game, she’ll “need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game.” When young girls are reminded so often that they might not be cut out for the field, that their contributions may not be as valuable, then they might start to believe it’s not for them.
It is small social and cultural hints like that that can chip away at girls’ sense of confidence and belonging in the field.
There’s an oft-cited belief that women are choosing not to go into tech because they simply don’t like the subject-matter or they’re naturally not interested in it. But this sentiment assumes the choice is made freely, without external factors that may have influenced the decision. It is growing clear from a large body of research that “there are significant social barriers to women’s entry into computer science and engineering that preclude women from being able to make a truly “free” choice” (Cheryan et al., 2015).
Researchers from the University of Washington have performed a number of studies that demonstrated how stereotypes can influence college and high school students’ interest in enrolling in introductory computer science courses. When stereotypes were more salient in their learning environments and in the people they interacted with, girls significantly reported less interest in computer science, even when they felt confident in their abilities. They concluded that broadening the mental image of what it means to be a programmer or engineer can signal to students that they do not have to fit a specific mold to be successful in tech. Instead of deconstructing the geek stereotype, it may be effective to diversify the image of computer science so that those considering a tech career don’t feel that they must embody the prevailing stereotypes to fit in and be successful. I’ve included some references at the end for further reading.
Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?
I must preface this by saying that I cannot speak for all women in tech.
When it comes to being a woman in the tech industry, the spectrum of experiences are varied. However, there are a few obstacles that I’ve encountered that I think other women relate to. The first is the lack of female role models and mentors in the field. Especially when I was younger, I didn’t meet or know women who were well established in the industry already. Growing up, I felt like there weren’t any role models I related to and could aspire to be like. As for mentorship, I think the situation now is better compared to 5-6 years ago when I was still a student in university. I think there are more outreach programs and meetup groups nowadays that are geared towards introducing computer science to minorities that may not have had as much exposure to tech.
Another challenge that women might face is bias. While this may not come in the form of blatant discrimination, I think some women may face an undercurrent of doubt and negative bias. Women may feel like they need to defend their ideas more or fight unconscious assumptions that they are less competent than their male peers. I’m fortunate that I have not experienced this in my professional life thus far; most of the negative biases I’ve encountered were actually during university.
The role of being the only woman in the classroom or team might also be a challenge women in tech encounter. Such an environment could sometimes lead to a sense of isolation and non-belonging, although I think this would depend on the type of people you meet and work with. Most of the time I did not experience any problems with this, but occasionally someone would make it a point to draw attention to the fact that I’m female and treat me differently just because I’m a different gender than the rest of the group.
Technology is pervasive in our lives. When you have a more diverse demographic designing products, the result may be better products suitable for a wider spectrum of people.
Those experiences increased the sense of isolation. The best interactions would be with colleagues who treated me like a normal person, no different from the rest of the team.
Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?
Technology is pervasive in our lives. When you have a more diverse demographic designing products, the result may be better products suitable for a wider spectrum of people. On the flipside, when you have a more homogenous demographic designing products for the general population, data biases may result, resulting in products that work better for certain groups of people but not for others.
Caroline Criado Perez wrote an interesting book exploring the impact of data biases in her book “Invisible Women.” She provides examples that demonstrate the pitfalls of data bias – for instance, AI algorithms that are trained on data sets that are drawn from a narrow demographic. She cites a ton of examples, ranging from biases in voice recognition to the size of VR headsets and smartphones. In 2016, Rachael Tatman, a research fellow in linguistics at the University of Washington, found that Google’s speech-recognition software was 70% more accurate for men than women, possibly due to unbalanced training sets. Peggy Johnson, executive vice president of business development at Microsoft, shared at the New Rules Summit in 2010 how data biases were revealed in the Kinect just before it went to market. A female employee at Microsoft had tested the Kinect and found that the motion sensing capabilities worked fine for her husband, but it had trouble with her and her children. Since it was only tested on men aged 18-35, it did not recognize the body motions of children and women as well.
It’s not just limited to gender. When tech plays such an impactful and prevalent role in modern society, it helps when a diverse group of people from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds are developing products designed to help and improve everybody’s lives, not just for one demographic.
The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?
I’m glad it’s a topic that’s being discussed more seriously in recent years; however, I think there is still a very long way to go. I’m happy however that SUSE’s CEO, Melissa Di Donato, has brought this topic to light in recent years and launched a number of initiatives that I believe would provide support and advocacy to people who may feel isolated in this industry. For instance, our company has recently launched a Women in Tech network as well as numerous mentoring programs. I think it’s definitely a great step forward.
And as for how long it’d take to see results, it’s impossible for me to predict how long it’ll be before we’d start to see a cultural shift in tech and computer science. I believe there needs to be change from the bottom-up – it’s important to question and deconstruct stereotypes, biases, and societal expectations early on and to encourage young girls that tech and STEM careers are viable paths for them too. For those of us already in the industry, I hope we can pave the way for a culture that includes them too.
What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career?
A career in tech is challenging, yet rewarding. Know your worth and don’t be afraid to assert your ideas and ask questions. Challenge your self-doubt and be wary of Imposter Syndrome. Find a mentor and reach out to networks and groups that foster your growth in this industry. Be kind to yourself and don’t be afraid of mistakes, and know that aptitude has nothing to do with gender or inborn capabilities.
Cheryan, S., Master, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2015). Cultural stereotypes as
gatekeepers: Increasing girls’ interest in computer science and engineering by diversifying stereotypes. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(49).
Master, A., Cheryan, S., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2015). Computing whether she
belongs: Stereotypes undermine girls’ interest and sense of belonging in computer science. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(3), 424–437.
More Women in Tech:
- Women in Tech: “Women should acknowledge their strong qualities”
- Women in Tech: “Degrees can matter but they aren’t required”
- Women in Tech: “The IT sector requires a lot of energy and will”
- Women in Tech: “I got to be a self-taught, self-managed, problem solver”
- Women in Tech: “Don’t let irrational advice keep you from tech!”