Brenda Darden Wilkerson’s life is spent juggling between conferences, summits, and workshops, which are mostly centred around women and their participation in all things related to technology. These are also the very gatherings that pumps her enthusiasm, knowing all too well the privilege of getting to code, create, and innovate.
Despite having entered the world of technology late, Brenda, who is the President and CEO of AnitaB.org, is now leading a huge network of women technologists. She discovered much earlier, and was well equipped with the power that comes with becoming a technologist. However, that didn’t stop her from working towards providing access and opportunity for underrepresented communities, including women.
Serving as the director of Computer Science and IT Education for Chicago Public Schools (CPS), she founded the ‘Computer Science for All’ initiative after 2009, which also received praise from former US president Barack Obama. The initiative was born out of her concern that all students should have access and exposure to computer science early in their education, and went on to impact over 1.5 million students in the US.
Into the world of Computer Science
Brenda grew up wanting to be a doctor, and went ahead majoring in pre-med biomedical engineering at Northwestern University. That is when she chanced upon Computer Science, as the course mandated two programming classes. And since then, there has been no stopping this fascination of hers. This, despite the fact that she encountered very few women in the space.
“From the beginning, the tech space has been more of a masculine space. It is seen more fitting to them (men),” she said, speaking on the sidelines of the tenth Grace Hopper Celebration in Bengaluru earlier this month.
Taking her first step as a professional programmer at Sears in 1980s, Brenda recalled being amazed by the fact that not many men had a computer science background. They did not have the degrees, and surprisingly the shared belief at workplace was ‘they could learn it’.
Now, she thoroughly enjoys organising or participating in events where women - aspiring and professionals - in technology come together to learn and network.
After nearly three decades of engaging in the tech innovation and education space, she notes the perspective of people who are ‘believed to be tech literal’ and those ‘who should be doing tech’ has gradually come to change.
“But then, that’s where our work comes in - to make sure that tech is very diverse and that all the new areas that will be developed in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and others, women have a space to contribute,” she emphasised, stating that she has seen the number of women go down for reasons such as taking care of their children, among others.
For Brenda, getting to interact with other women never gets boring, and is nothing but refreshing. She earnestly says there is just so much in common such as the aspiration and desire to have impact and contribute.
Women leadership and culture in tech
When women don the leadership hat, she said they will either be creating the culture or changing the cultures to make them more inducive to be inclusive.
“If we have more women, we have more diverse voices at the table, and people are going to be bringing forward the representation of more of the population. So, you can have more software that’s meeting the needs of the population,” she said, referring to gender stereotypes being reinstated through modern technology.
When asked about tackling issues like these and others, she said women climb up towards holding leadership roles. “There are more men named James than women in leadership roles in the US. There’s just not enough of us,” she added, and said women reaching 30 percent of leadership roles would be the tipping point.
Brenda, who has had access to technologists from India from the beginning of her career, lauded that India has, in fact, seen 34 percent of women in leadership capacities.
Even in the field of education, she has worked with many professors in the US who had studied in India. And two years since becoming the President and CEO of AnitaB.org, the tech veteran said she is excited about all the developments that are yet to come.
Gearing up with same zeal and brilliance
Speaking of younger girls that she has met in different parts of the world, Brenda said she has seen them doing as much interviewing of the companies as the companies do of them.
“They want to see the companies are socially responsible and diverse, and they want to see that women are in the middle, in the top, and on their boards,” she noted, in what she calls is a wake-up call for the companies. She also observed that girls who get trained as interns later choose to leave and go somewhere else, which she says is a big loss for the companies.
“The key for me is I see the same zeal and brilliance in younger people,” Brenda said, who learnt in her initial days that becoming a techie meant donning the role of producer more than just consumer.
Pondering on the current lack of women leaders, she stated the challenge is to have more role models. She stressed on the need for the world to see that women in leadership can really have an impact on the choices that a company makes in terms of the solutions they develop, overall direction of the company, and bring difference in products and the population they serve to.