I wanted to make sure [computer science education] was available, that people had access, because access is freedom.
Brenda Darden Wilkerson is a powerful advocate for providing access and opportunity to underrepresented communities in technology. As president and CEO of AnitaB.org, she leads a global nonprofit organization focused on recruiting, retaining, and advancing women in technology fields.
On October 29, Darden Wilkerson joined President Sian Leah Beilock in conversation for an exclusive online event, presented by Beyond Barnard, to discuss her path as a STEM advocate, the importance of having diverse perspectives at the table within computer science, and how to encourage young girls to pursue STEM opportunities.
Before joining AnitaB.org, Darden Wilkerson spent 11 years managing computer science and information technology for Chicago Public Schools (CPS). In 2008, while she was still at CPS, she founded the groundbreaking Computer Science for All program, which aims to maximize the potential of every student through a computer science education defined by equity, empowerment, and opportunity. She went on to launch a second branch in New York City, and her work served as a blueprint for President Barack Obama’s 2016 CS for All initiative.
At AnitaB.org, Darden Wilkerson is broadening the scope of her efforts to include connecting, inspiring, and achieving greater equality for women technologists in business, academia, and government. The organization’s annual Grace Hopper Celebration connects thousands of women globally each year to learn, network, and celebrate their achievements, as part of the world’s largest gathering of women technologists. Last year, 30 Barnard students attended the event through Beyond Barnard. This year, President Beilock spoke at the virtual celebration.
In a lively conversation — part of the Insights: Powered by Barnard series geared toward students and alumnae — Darden Wilkerson and Beilock discussed their parallel work to increase access for women and girls interested in computer science.
“I love what you talk about when you talk about challenges and opportunities,” Beilock commented to Darden Wilkerson during the event. “You don’t just talk about it as a leader of a really important organization — you talk about it with all of the different aspects of your life, as a mother, as a Black woman. There’s a lot of psychological research showing that when you embrace these multiple identities, it can be a buffer for depression and anxiety and others. You have a bad day as a mother and you get to think about your computer scientist self or vice versa.”
Read key insights from Darden Wilkerson below:
On the importance of early access to computer science:
“I actually changed my major several times before I landed on computer science. My initial major was biomedical engineering, which required me to take two programming courses. So I like to say of myself I’m an accidental computer scientist, and it’s part of what fueled my passion to do what I do now, what I’ve done in education. No more accidents. People should know the full platter of their opportunities, and that came from my experiences. Especially if you’re high achieving, people think you’re supposed to know what you want to be when you grow up, as though you have to know that and it has to be definitive. It is for some, but not for all of us. We happen upon what we really want to do with our lives through experiences and through learnings.”
On why she took literature courses as a STEM major:
“People were like, ‘Why would you want to do that, you’re an engineer.’ Yes, I’m an engineer who wants to solve problems for people, so I want to understand the human condition. I didn’t want to become divorced from that and just think about the bits and the bytes. I think if we look at some of the great things that tech does, it’s not devoid of the people that it serves. And so [taking courses in different fields] works because we understand both sides of the coin. Where it doesn’t work is where we have people educated who have been told that they don’t need that stuff, and their solutions therefore are devoid of thinking about the human impact. We have problems there.”
On the experience of seeing CS for All become a national model:
“It was very humbling, it was very exciting, and it hit me — when I got to [Chicago Public Schools] and [computer science] wasn’t there, I realized it was similar to my experience. I had gone to an all-Black school — and I always like to say we were all Black, not all poor, but those demographics many times help folks decide what’s in your school — and so now here’s a district that is 85% Black and brown. Same issue: [CS education was] not available. I wanted to make sure it was available, that people had access, because access is freedom. And so it was exciting to be able to go to the White House and work with these really brilliant people, to be able to think about taking that vision out to everyone, and now I’ve actually been able to work with folks around the world.”
On her strategy as CEO of AnitaB.org:
“At the heart of our approach is community. Anyone who’s successful has a network, learns from many people, gains many experiences, and many times those of us who are in STEM and especially those STEM subjects where there are very few women, we do it alone. And so what we’ve tried to do is make sure that women have an international community of people that they can relate to. Many times, the issue around being successful is that we don’t see folks that look like us — how does the adage go? — ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ I disagree with that, but it’s harder. And so community is at the core of what we do.
“The second thing is tech impacts every aspect of our lives, and therefore it needs to be created by folks that are representative of everyone in the world. That’s not the case right now. So [we] make sure that that table where tech is created is as diverse as possible — inclusive technology needs to be at the center of our ‘collective’ future. We’re working to lift up the names and the contributions of women who have contributed to tech so women know that they’re not breaking into anything. Their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers created this thing, and that gives them power. That will help many more women know that they can do tech, and the world will be a better place for it.”
On the future of tech:
"I believe that the highest and best use of tech is in service of people. I believe that all of the work that many have done to bring more women into STEM and more underrepresented minorities into STEM means that we have a situation where more ideas and more experiences are at the table to solve the problems of all people. You know, not to offend anybody, but we don’t need another ‘go get me a sandwich’ app. Really? We don’t need that. We need to solve real problems for real people. We need to figure out how to connect real jobs with real people. We need to figure out clean water and affordable housing. Now, those of us who have been challenged by some of those things bring those ideas to the table. So I’m very optimistic that as we continue to work to bring more diversity to the table, more problems will be solved. Access is the key.”
On how to encourage young girls to pursue STEM opportunities:
“You tell them how smart they are, and you counteract what the images are telling them. You counteract those images where people are saying, ‘That’s not for girls.’ You tell her how smart she is because she is. We know that girls start out really well in math and science and they get talked out of it. Then you give them the right toys to play with. You give them things that they’re interested in — so if they’re interested in dance, give them a program that allows them to choreograph their dance, so that they can think about the connection, the intersection of the two. It’s not dance over here and technology over here. You’re not steering them away from what they like, you’re showing them how they can do what they like with technology. If you connect pleasure with it, success, solving problems — you put them around others that like to do the same thing [and who] look like them, send them articles of successful women who’ve done amazing things to change the world with what they’ve built, and tell them about those women — then they are more likely to think that they can become one of those women.”
On advice to women looking to make a career shift to computer science after several years in a different industry:
“I’d say do it. What you could do is find yourself a mentor who you can relate to, who can also kind of step you through. We have a membership program that connects women around the world so you can talk to other women who might be in your very discipline who crossed over. Plus, there are lots of courses out there. MIT has free courses, Harvard has free courses, [there’s] Coursera. There are lots and lots of ways for you to learn online. You can go out and do a search and find YouTube videos. Just start. Say you’re going to do something like Learning Thursdays and say, ’I’m going to take a Thursday, one hour, and I’m just going to investigate.’ Just get yourself immersed, and be patient with yourself. Try a different [programming] language, try a different group, try a different YouTube video. I can tell you of so many women who came in and they learned it while they were rocking their babes. So it is available to you, all you have to do is want to do it and give yourself the opportunity.”
On the best piece of advice she’s ever received:
“That all of my uniqueness was what I brought to the table, and not to try to be like anyone else. You can be inspired by others, you can learn from others, but take all of that learning and deposit it into the person that you are and go forth from there. You don’t need to be different. You need to work, you need to learn, you need to have experiences, you need to listen to the advice of others, but you are your best asset. Especially as women, we have so many voices coming at us: You’re too fat, you’re too tall, you’re too short — ugh. You are what’s missing. You are what’s needed.”
*Responses have been condensed for length and clarity.
Watch the full conversation between Darden Wilkerson and Beilock below: