You may have heard that Megan Smith former Vice President of GoogleX is now the Chief Technology Officer for The White House. Smith has both a Bachelor and a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, she serves on the MIT Board, and she is also a successful entrepreneur. She has an outstanding commitment to gender diversity and she is one of the few big-name leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) who is visible in her work with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) communities. Smith was formerly the CEO of PlanetOut, an online LGBT organisation. Let’s take a look at Smith’s amazing credentials and her work on women in STEM and LGBTQ advocacy.
Smith joined Google in 2003 where she first ran Google’s philanthropic organisation, Google.org. Google notes that Smith “helped to add more engineering with Google Crisis Response, Google for Non-Profits, Earth Outreach/Engine.” Smith has been a champion of STEM women issues, including through the Women Techmakers initiative, which supports women through visibility, resources and community support. More recently Smith oversaw Google’s “moonshot” projects, which encompasses cutting edge technology such as the acquisitions that would lead to Google Maps and Google Earth, as well as the development of self-driving cars in Google’s “secret” projects team, GoogleX. Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin wished Smith well in her new role, noting that “Megan has inspired so many people through her commitment to inclusion and innovation.”
Shaping the Future of Tech
Smith’s new role will be to provide technology advice to the American Government. She is the third-ever Chief Technology Officer, a position introduced by the Obama Administration. The White House statement announcing Smith’s appointment notes she’ll focus on issues such as “Internet policy, intellectual property policy, and the intersection of big data, technology, and privacy.” President Obama said of Smith’s appointment:
“Megan has spent her career leading talented teams and taking cutting-edge technology and innovation initiatives from concept to design to deployment. I am confident that in her new role as America’s Chief Technology Officer, she will put her long record of leadership and exceptional skills to work on behalf of the American people. I am grateful for her commitment to serve, and I look forward to working with her and with our new Deputy U.S. CTO, Alexander Macgillivray, in the weeks and months ahead.”
At the 2014 Women Techmakers Summit in May, Smith discussed women’s visibility in tech, MIT’s diversity program, connectivity for Africa and “heroic engineering.” She began by quoting: “The world needs women.” She later cites a New York Times article from 2010 which features Google’s Ngram Viewer program which analysed 500 billion words contained in books published between 1500 and 2008. In all that time, across various languages (English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese and Russian), the word “women” rarely appears up until the 1970s, thanks to the advent of second-wave feminism. In the same talk, Smith notes, “In tech we still have to work on our visibility.”
Smith cites various women leaders who are not widely known, from the ENIAC women who helped create the modern computer; to Mae Jemison the first African-American woman in space; to Katherine Johnson another African-American woman who helped code some of NASA’s most important missions; to Joanna Hoffman and the three other women who helped created the first Mac computers for Apple. Smith notes that even within Google’s own projects, with something as (seemingly) innocuous like the Google Doodle, they did not feature a woman for the first seven years. Now through diversity training and other programs, Google features an even number of prominent women and male leaders. She says:
“The diversity of all of the millions of us, the technical women, the computer science women, is broad. This industry and this planet needs us badly. So bring what you want to do, what you want to discover, what you want to make, raise your voice and raise your visibility and find your “x” and find your team. And let’s network and make it happen.”
Lesbian and queer publication Autostraddle names Smith a “Lesbian Badass” and “the futuristic lesbian MacGuyver” given that she will now be charged with protecting “the Openness of the Internet” and bringing the American Government “into the 21st Century.” Autostraddle writes that Smith’s appointment is important both to gender diversity and inclusion of lesbian women in tech, given that most LGBTQ STEM events are largely directed by and geared towards gay men:
“one solution to bolstering the number of women in not just the tech field, but in STEM fields at large, is to provide visible examples to women. Specifically, to provide examples to middle school girls to get them interested in those topics that will lead them to a fulfilling STEM career… Girls who are entering sixth grade now will grow up in a world where the person directing The United States technology policies and big decisions is a female person. That’s massive! And lesbians in the tech field have previously felt this weird sense of isolation… It’s just awesome to be able to point at a very visible, recognisable and powerful government position that is based on having a massive amount of technology knowledge and say “LOOK WE EXIST LOOK LOOK LOOK.”
This is very true. In a new article published on Nature.com, my colleagues and I show how the myth that girls can’t do STEM goes back to socialisation, rather than having some innate basis. When children first start Prep they have little preconceived ideas about science, but by Grade 2, they have learned the stereotype that scientists are White men in lab coats. Through parental and teacher bias, the media, and other life experiences, girls can be discouraged from STEM. Addressing stereotypes about gender, sexuality and race can undo this damage. We note that role models, especially in classrooms and in university, can make positive change, alongside more inclusive policies and other intervention programs. Smith’s appointment is a significant event, as girls can look to a prominent woman who will shape technological advancements in one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations. Young lesbian women can now also look to a leader who can bring sexual diversity into the spotlight, and hopefully start new conversations about the diverse career pathways available to girls and women from different walks of life. Read about other trailblazing women in tech further below.
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- Watch Smith at Startup Grind 2014
- Read a profile of Smith on the Washington Post
- In her Women Techmakers talk, Smith cites the Declaration of Sentiment which was the first women-led conference on women’s rights in the USA held in 1848. Here is the 68 women and 32 men who signed it
- Learn more about some of the women Smith mentions and others on our STEM Women website. Start with our #StemHeroines posts on our Google+ page, which features women STEM pioneers (some of the posts I wrote are included below). Otherwise check out our Hangout on Air interviews with contemporary women in STEM.
Other Amazing Women in Tech
Some of my posts for STEM Women on historical figures you should get to know!