Duke Wiring With Women hosted a panel discussion Monday for students and professors on improving diversity in the technology sector.
The event brought together four Duke students and a professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to discuss their experience in the computer science and engineering fields. During the course of the event, the panelists tackled how to feel comfortable in the workplace and offered suggestions for those in the audience hoping to pursue a career in technology.
“I see tech as building tools to solve problems," said senior Uzoma Ayogu, a mechanical engineering major and the University's next undergraduate Young Trustee. "In an increasingly multicultural world, we need more diverse voices, or we’d be educating the same people to solve the same problem."
Senior Tina Chen, one of the event moderators, opened the panel with important statistics about the technology industry. She noted a 2016 survey finding that 60 percent of women who responded to the survey reported sexual harassment. She also cited low levels of LGBTQ+ workers who disclose their sexual orientation.
In addition to promoting a healthier and safer work environment, diversity can also promote better products, said sophomore Jasmine Lu, another event moderator. She cited Tay, Microsoft’s artificial intelligence chatterbot on Twitter. Tay had to be shut down after 16 hours because the bot began to post racist tweets, which Microsoft said it learned from trolls who “attacked” the service.
“If Microsoft had a team that was more aware of the problems that Tay might have encountered when they released it, they might not have had to take it down after less than 24 hours in the world,” she said.
Panelists shared their personal experiences in the tech and engineering fields. Senior Henry Yuen, who studies computer science and electric engineering, noted the difficulty of trying to relate to others in the room.
“As a minority, you’re always trying to fit in with everyone else, or be someone you don’t have to be," he said. "When I went to one conference [for LGBTQ+ people in tech], one of my first thoughts was 'I’ve never seen this many LGBTQ+ people in one room.'"
Anna Miyajima, a senior studying computer science, said a lack of diversity has negatively impacted her ability to work. She shared her experiences working in a homogenous environment both at Google and at Pinterest—which she described as "a discouraging feeling for a female in software engineering." Miyajima is the co-founder of Duke Wiring with Women, which empowers women in coding fields.
The event closed with the panelists sharing advice for students who want to pursue a future career in the technology industry. For example, Miyajima encouraged students to experiment. She was initially planning to study psychology before she found her passion in computer science instead.
Ph.D. student Victoria Nneji encouraged those who do not identify as minorities to support their peers. She currently works in the Human and Autonomy Lab studying the rise of autonomous technology.
"If you see a program that is intended to recruit a certain group, don’t feel like your [minority] colleagues are getting so many opportunities [that you are not]," Nneji said. "You shouldn’t let this hold you back from supporting another person. It’ll end up being a positive thing for you in the future.”
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And Yuen encouraged members of the audience to "step out of their comfort zone" and try to learn from others' experiences.
“It’s easy to make friends with people who look like you and think like you," he said. "The responsibility is on you to step outside of your comfort zone and not see people as minorities but as people you can learn from. [We] all bring something a little unique and special. Think of minorities as people who can really add value to a team and people you can learn from.”