Breaking the Digital Glass Ceiling as a Young Black Woman in Tech

Nicole Allen is consultant at Brooklyn-based Wireless Generation, an education technology innovator. She’s worked in the private and public sectors

Ms. Allen.

Nicole Allen is consultant at Brooklyn-based Wireless Generation, an education technology innovator. She’s worked in the private and public sectors and she is also a co-founder of Tiffany Allen Reed Scholarship Foundation, a North Carolina foundation focused on helping young women overcome financial barriers to college.

By the time I entered high school in Greensboro, North Carolina in the late nineties, I was already being encouraged to do more with the math and science potential I’d shown in middle school. I was directed into a specialized public school focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, a far less common option for girls not that many years before.

Yet, even while I was being steered toward a “tech” future, and ostensibly breaking boundaries, I still had no idea what that future could look like, or where to turn to find out. This could be true for any young student with math and science talent, but for a young woman of color there were few mentors and even fewer role models. And this has not significantly changed.

When first pursuing engineering I chose “electrical” simply because I’d heard it was the highest paying engineering discipline. It didn’t occur to me what I would actually do all day, or that I had so many choices to make about how to use my background. I thought I might end up developing software for a big corporation, or building airplane communications systems. I assumed my choice of major meant I would be glued to my computer screen, forever. I didn’t understand that technology jobs entailed working and collaborating with people, shaping ideas and engaging in creative problem solving, often outside traditional office walls. I didn’t understand this because I was surrounded by classmates, mostly first generation engineers, who had never been exposed to accomplished women in the field.

Today, with my degree in Electrical Engineering for North Carolina A & T State University and a MPA from NYU, I am determined to create a different experience for young women who are following a similar path and want to know where their studies can lead. I work in a consulting group within a Brooklyn-based education tech company, Wireless Generation, where my primary job is to bring education innovation, such as new digital tools and new ways to use data, to scale for thousands of teachers and millions of students.

Last month, I led a group of women from Wireless Generation on a field trip of sorts to share our career experiences with high school girls at New York City’s UA Institute of Math and Science for Young Women. It’s part of a larger desire to support schools and communities who are investing in inspiring young women to pursue careers in STEM. Companies, schools, and universities must work together to create a strategy that not only leads to hiring women in technical fields, but contributes to their success.

UAI is great example of this model. More than 80 percent of their students are African American and the remaining population is Hispanic, white, and Asian. Many of the students will become the “few” women known among their family or friends to receive a college degree and even fewer to receive an engineering or technical degree.

One major impression the women of Wireless Generation made during our visit was frankly not about the details of our careers: “I have never seen an engineer like you, who is so smart and so well dressed,” one girl happily declared. None of us looked or acted like the waning stereotype of a dowdy female engineer. The students were amazed that our roles required us to look professional, and even stylish, when meeting clients, and that it’s possible to be look good and develop software. They didn’t simply want to hear app development; they were curious about our organic style of brainstorming ideas at a scrum board, or about building stick models in less than 30 seconds that will become the basis of a new education app.

Yes, it was supposed to be a learning experience for the girls, but for me the best part was what I learned from their questions. They wanted to know about balance, what’s it like working in a mostly male world and about being a minority in a technology workplace. “Have you ever experienced feeling different or not ‘fitting in’ because of your gender or race?” they asked me. “How did you get to education from engineering?” Their questions pushed me to reflect more thoughtfully on my own professional journey.

My approach had been “just do it” or “take on the experience” and learn from it. The questions they asked were the same ones I pondered before starting my career. But I lacked mentors or role models to answer my questions. With the help of my talented women colleagues from Wireless Generation, these girls don’t have to experience what I felt. And, through people like Mara Tucker, Director of Development at UAI, who knows how vital this type of exposure and discussion can be, many of these young women will pursue technology careers and embrace their difference as an asset. Mara has taken the lead in making UA girls increasingly aware of what’s out there. Becoming more inclusive for women and minorities in STEM is not about erasing our differences, but benefitting from what makes us different. No one is saying to these girls, “you can’t do this.” In fact we’re saying, you can–and here’s how.

We’ve invited the girls back to Wireless Generation to see a creative, technology workplace. Building relationships takes time and investment, I want these young girls not only to see our support, but feel the excitement that we have in knowing they will become the next generation of women in STEM. We’re cheering for them and believe they can break the digital ceiling just as many of us already have.

Breaking the Digital Glass Ceiling as a Young Black Woman in Tech