Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a project in which we hope to explore the continued lack of female representation for employees and entrepreneurs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The first installment of this series can be found here.
Jessica Lawrence is the executive director of the New York Tech Meetup, which hosts monthly events that cater to over 39,000 members in New York’s technology community. She is also part of Girls Who Code‘s brain trust. Before taking on those tasks, Lawrence served as CEO of the Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council in Southern California. Her leadership experiences have introduced her to countless girls and women with passionate interests in STEM careers.
Lawrence spoke with me about what motivates her, how female tech entrepreneurs still grapple with insecurities, and why the conversation on the lack of women in STEM must continue — no matter how tired of it some may be.
Edited interview excerpts below.
The Story Exchange: What inspires you to create ways for women in tech to meet (such as through the NY Tech Meetup Coalition for Women in Technology)?
My inspiration came, in part, from my early experiences with the Girl Scouts in Southern California. About eight years ago, I found myself in an engineering lab surrounded by a group of 30 giggling 11- and 12 year-olds [during an event we held]. We asked the girls to start a “bug” list — taking notes on design and engineering flaws that bugged them. As they were building their lists, one of the girls said to her mentor, a female engineering student: “I’ve noticed my mom doesn’t have any place to store her purse while she’s driving our minivan. Does that count as a design flaw?” Her mentor confirmed that it was. With that, the girl’s eyes lit up: “So that means that … I could design the car and I could design it differently?” She had never thought that way before. She had never made the connection between the fact that the world was designed and built with the idea that there were human beings designing and building it. And she had never understood that she could be one of those designers. I was inspired to see more lightbulbs go off for young women. It also reinforced the idea that, when there is more diversity in these fields, we are more likely to create solutions that are reflective of the challenges of a broader portion of the population.
The Story Exchange: How else was your time at the Girl Scouts influential?
Not only did it create that initial spark of inspiration, but it also proved to me that girls are incredibly interested in STEM — they just often don’t receive the support and encouragement to actively pursue careers in those fields. When I transitioned to working with NYTM and tech startups, I was actually a bit surprised by how unwelcoming the tech industry still is in many ways to women. Girl Scouts was a somewhat protected environment, and I hadn’t been exposed to how sexist and sometimes threatening the tech space could be for women. Experiencing this has fueled that desire even more to make tech and engineering spaces where women can thrive.
The Story Exchange: Have you noticed that women are reluctant or hesitant to participate at tech meetups?
New York is home to a very active community of women in technology with powerful voices who speak up often. But in some cases there are still disparities. For instance, [there is a disparity] between how often women apply to demo at NYTM’s monthly meetup — which is very infrequently — and how often men do. I thought at first that this might just be because there are fewer female-founded startups. To test that theory, I hosted a couple of women-only demo events. Dozens of female-founded companies applied to present — substantially more in a month or two than had applied to demo at our regular monthly meetup over an entire year. When I asked them why they didn’t apply to the main monthly event, there was a long list of reasons given, from the fact that they didn’t think their product was developed enough to that they thought it wasn’t “techie” enough.
The Story Exchange: How can we foster better representation of women in STEM?
Visibility is one of the core underlying issues in two ways. First, girls can’t be what they can’t see. If they aren’t exposed to STEM at a young age, if they don’t see female role models in the field, and if STEM it isn’t integrated into education of all children, then girls are much more likely to fall prey to outdated gender norms and to listen to the voices of parents and even teachers or guidance counselors who actively steer them away from STEM. Second, we can’t expect people to solve problems that they don’t know are still problems. Until I worked in tech and repeatedly heard stories of the types of negative experiences women have in the field, I would have never believed how uncomfortable the space can be for women. As much as some people might get tired of talking about the problem, the numbers and the stories show that the problem is far from being solved, so we need to keep talking about it.
For a List of All Project Posts: The Story Exchange on STEM Entrepreneurship