UScellular and Girls Who Code Debunk STEM Myths
In February, Dr. Tarika Barrett, CEO of Girls Who Code, joined Denise Lintz, UScellular’s Vice President of Enterprise Portfolio Management and Technology Shared Services, for a candid conversation about their career paths, advice for students and parents on pursuing a career in STEM, and what people may be surprised to learn about STEM professions.
Lintz, a self-described technology nerd, started her career as a programmer and is now an officer who leads teams focused on driving enterprise technology initiatives. Barrett joined Girls Who Code in 2016 and became CEO in 2021. Girls Who Code is an international non-profit committed to closing the gender gap in entry-level tech jobs by 2030.
Here is an edited version of their conversation.
At UScellular, we are working to shrink gaps in STEM education by increasing access to learning and connecting children to the possibilities of STEM careers. We share a common goal - eliminating barriers for women who are looking for opportunities in STEM, and today we're going to talk about STEM career paths and perceptions around STEM. But first, can you please share a little more about yourself and Girls Who Code?
Dr. Tarika Barrett:
Thank you so much, Denise. I'll start by saying I'm proud to be the CEO of Girls Who Code, an organization working to close the gender gap in tech. But I'm also Jamaican-American, the proud daughter of immigrants, a Black woman and an educator. And all these perspectives help shape how I approach my work.
At Girls Who Code, we're leading the movement to inspire, educate and equip students who identify as girls, or non-binary, with the computing skills to take on 21st-century opportunities. The way that we see it, by addressing this growing gender gap in tech, we're empowering young women to seek out the thriving and exciting careers of the future. And for us, we imagine a world where our computer science classrooms are as diverse as our communities. A world where women can have a sisterhood to lean on and a world where that sisterhood translates into meaningful change for communities everywhere.
At UScellular, we have jobs including: project managers, network engineers, cell tower technicians and traditional developer and programming jobs. But girls are getting left behind, with the biggest drop happening between the ages of 13 and 17. Girls Who Code focuses on these critical development years and has created programs to engage girls. Why is this work so important?
Tech jobs are among the fastest growing occupations in the country. We're expected to grow this sector by more than half a million jobs by 2029. And these are jobs that pay. STEM jobs pay 26% more than other careers. And while the wage gap for Black women compared to white men is 63 cents to the dollar, in the tech industry, Black women make 90 cents to the dollar. So, what we're really talking about is that young women who pursue a career in tech are preparing themselves for the labor force of the future. And beyond that, careers in STEM can be creative and fun and challenging. We want to see all students, regardless of background. We want them to know that they can have a future in the field and to give them the tools they need to get there.
What was your career path like? How did you get where you are today, and what influenced you the most?
When people ask career path questions, I always want to be completely transparent. It was not linear. There were a lot of things that I did that are completely different, and I always want folks to know that there is no roadmap here. I stand on the shoulders of generations of inspiration - women who got me to where I am today, and I remain inspired by the girls in our program that really push me to continue to keep working for a better future.
Back in Jamaica, my grandmother had to drop out of school so she could work on the family farm to support her seven younger siblings after her own mother had died. And even though her education was cut short, she managed to instill in her four children this idea that education could pry open doors of opportunity. And that inspiration led her daughter, my mom, to be the first in our family to go to college and to get a graduate degree.
I come to this space first and foremost as an educator and an activist who's fought for issues in equity of education for nearly my entire career. And I have a wonderful mother who taught me not just about the power of education, but also, to know that I could go into spaces. See the type of work that was necessary but wasn't happening, wasn't getting done, and to have the agency to believe that I could be the change that I needed to see, the change that was needed.
When I was working at the New York City Department of Education, I put those lessons into action. I got a chance to work with kids who many people had written off. Most of them were poor Black and brown kids. Kids who looked a lot like me when I was their age. And eventually I had the opportunity to lead the team that got to build a first-of-its-kind high school that focused on software engineering. It was going be a part of the then-Mayor's plan to make New York City into a tech hub.
Helping to get that school off the ground was one of my proudest accomplishments as an educator but it was also a critical lesson for me to always exist at the intersection of opportunity and bravery. And to really disrupt the status quo whenever possible. And I think that's what led me to my job here as the CEO of Girls Who Code and what drives me to this cause. We're at a real moment when equity in tech education is possible and closing the gender gap in tech is possible, and I knew I had to be a part of that change.
What an inspirational story, so thank you so much for sharing that. I know if my grandmother could see where I am today, she would be so proud and, like you, I have a very strong mother who encouraged me to do whatever my dreams were. Switching gears, our recent survey showed a disconnect between what parents see as STEM fields versus what students' idea of STEM career paths are. What advice would you give to parents to help them gain a better understanding of STEM?
The main thing that we tell folks is to be curious and learn alongside your student. You don't have to have all the answers but instead exhibit that curiosity and learn about these STEM fields together.
There are also all kinds of concrete things that I would encourage parents to look at. Girls Who Code talks, TED Talks, STEM-focused podcasts. Believe it or not, there are folks on TikTok who really focus on STEM. So much of it is also kind of meeting your young person where they are. Ask them what they're interested in or passionate about so that you can really connect to their interest.
Students also don't have to choose between a career in STEM and a career that's artistic, or creative, or values community. Technology cuts across so many disciplines and career pathways, so developing STEM skills can enable and empower students to pursue fulfilling and well-paying jobs that overlap with other interests.
Our survey also found that 75% of students feel that a STEM career is attainable, yet many said there are significant barriers including cost, difficulty of the subject, and lack of diversity. What advice would you give to students about how they can overcome these barriers?
Parents can encourage their students to remove these barriers by empowering them to seek out community and support systems that help them find that solidarity. One of our core values at Girls Who Code is sisterhood. We believe so strongly that collaborative environments are essential to helping students build confidence in their abilities, have support networks to help them persist in the face of discrimination, and tools to fight for meaningful change in the tech world. The work to tackle something as vast and systemic as the gender gap in tech is less daunting when you have peers and role models on your side.
From your experience, can you share with us some examples of STEM career pathways, especially ones that aren't so costly?
Cost is such an interesting question because it is a barrier, right? But as the need for tech workers grows, we are seeing a lot more flexibility, with companies thinking outside the box and lowering the barrier to entry for entry-level jobs. This presents a lot of opportunities for students who may not have the resources to pursue a costly four-year degree.
At Girls Who Code, we always ensure that students from community colleges, or students with two-year degrees have the same opportunities to meet with top companies and recruiters. This type of higher education is a great way to learn the fundamentals without breaking the bank.
We're also seeing an increase in certifications and boot camps that offer intensive learning opportunities for folks who just want to break into the tech industry. All students, regardless of background, deserve the opportunity to pursue a STEM career, and we hope to see more companies commit to non-traditional candidates and providing pathways into tech.
We're going to do a lightening round here to finish our conversation. Our survey identified a few more common misconceptions people have. Let's run through these and let me know what you think.
Misconception: “Jobs in STEM are not creative.”
It's our girls and young women who are among the most powerful creators and change makers. We have to harness that energy, not stifle it, within the tech industry and let our young people know that careers in tech can be an outlet for their passion and their creativity. That's why we partnered this past year with Doja Cat to create the world's first ever codable music video for her song, "Woman." This was an interactive video experience that allowed any user to unlock hidden video content using basic coding languages, and you didn't have to have any prior coding experience. The aim of the experience was to show new generations of young women and young girls who don't know that this can be a career opportunity within the tech sector. It can be fun and creative, so I absolutely disagree with that statement.
Misconception: “STEM education is expensive.”
I would say true, but we're starting to see this change. I think our society is slowly beginning to acknowledge that a four-year degree is financially out of reach for so many Americans. And we're excited to see more opportunities for students who want to take a less costly path. Community college students are a big part of the Girls Who Code community, and we make sure that they have the same direct access to recruiters from tech companies as our students who are able to attend four-year colleges.
“Misconception: You have to be good at math to go into a STEM profession?”
The beauty of the STEM field is that it's incredibly broad, and there's so many different options for the kind of career you want to pursue. Considering that, different skills are valuable to different professions and not everyone needs to be passionate about math, certainly, to pursue a technical degree. Coding, for example, focuses a lot more on problem solving, trial and error, bravery, and collaboration. People with limited math skills can go on to become great program developers, so I think we can dispel that rumor.
For more information on UScellular’s work with Girls Who Code, click here.