“Really just any other beverage than beer.“
- Tweet from Sravanti while coding over coffee
Sravanti Tekumalla explained to me that it’s not that everyone would drink tea (or coffee for that matter), or that only tea would be available; she would not be that dogmatic. But, her point is that if she had her own start up and if she hired her friends and they hired their friends, well, the work culture would be different from what she experiences now at her internships. There would be a culture of drinking tea, time to build relationships and opportunities to listen to everyone involved in a decision making process.
“They have a culture of drinking beer and playing ping-pong. They love science fiction.”
When Sravanti goes to work she is often the only woman in the room and though she does not always love the work culture of the tech start up world she has learned to work within it. In describing her dream start up with friends and friends of friends that exists in opposition to the culture of beer and ping-pong that she currently inhabits, she continues to say that there is nothing necessarily wrong with sci-fi and beer, it is just that she would want a broader variety of opinions and perspectives in her office.
2. Tweet from Sravanti: applying her coding skills towards play and aesthetic exploration
From the tone in her voice I can imagine that the lone ping-pong player might even be able to thrive at her imaginary start up (though he may not have anyone to play ping-pong with). She would want a work environment with a wider range of voices, interests and experiences. “People would do more artsy things and have outings to get to know one another. It wouldn’t be more artsy because of the girls it would just reflect the diversity of our interests.”
You might attribute Sravanti’s views on who should be coding and what coding would look like to her training and experiences. As a young woman with an interest in math and science (both of Sravanti’s parents studied science) Sravanti saw how much the perception of who belongs and who does not belong can impact a person’s career choice, academic pursuits and life path.
She recalled a time in school when after receiving an A- in her Chemistry class she asked her teacher if she could make a career out of her interest in Chemistry. “Probably not” she said. But then later when one of her male peers in the class who had only received a B+ for his work asked the same question he received enthusiastic encouragement and was told “likely so.”
3. Sravanti teaching code to her peers at a computer station in the student community space for Hour of Code in 2103.
This one conversation that her former instructor likely could not recall today, really shook Sravanti. She stopped taking Chemistry, believing based on the opinion of her teacher that she did not have what it took to make it in the field. But later she attended an all girls engineering camp and realized that she was not alone, that there were other girls who knew how to do what interested her and they were doing it well. In this environment Sravanti was not the outlier but the norm.
Now as a senior in Computer science at Wellesley College and an active member of the Wellesley Computer Science Club Sravanti is part of a community that works to make coding accessible and inclusive. During Wellesley CS Club Hackathons, Meet and Greets or Hour of Code events it is not uncommon for professors to walk around wearing doctor Seuss hats, for the club to set up coding stations in the student hall or for members to make publicity fliers that promise life-size cookies as light refreshments.
4. Publicity image for Wellesley Computer Science Club Event
In fact reading Sravanti’s tweets about coding words like “cool”, “prettyyy” “unleashed” “lovely” “creative” “wonderful” “blast” and “joy” come up. She seems fully indoctrinated in a culture that is welcoming newcomers and front-loading communication on the payback of coding. To a certain demographic her social media serves as an invitation to code. In Facebook photos of Sravanti tagged at the Wellesley CS Club she looks like she is having fun and building meaningful relationships.
Her imaginary start up would be mostly women. Not because of explicitly exclusionary practices but just because when you trained with women, worked with women and get to know women you are more likely to hire the people you know, already like, and know to be badass, and in this case they may, just happen to be women.
She says of her current work environment in off campus internships: “There’s not much blatant sexism, its more subtle like ‘Oh you’re a girl you should design our ap and make it pretty. They don’t believe I can do the other stuff.” But even when her co-works are not limiting their expectations of her based on their understandings and projections of gender norms the work environment is still not ideal.
5. Tweet that Sravanti was tagged in by a fellow coder at Wellesley.
“Its hard to establish a rapport when (we) have different sets of interests.” Sravanti’s co-workers often have a shared culture that doesn’t overlap with hers. And when you are the only member of a minority in the room sometimes your presence is just flatly ignored. Sravanti notes that her male co-workers often engage in conversations in front of her that she knows they would avoid or word differently if the gender split in their group were more balanced. In describing this difference she says that “the conversations are not the same ones they would have in a co-ed environment” almost forgetting that her very presence in these offices makes them co-ed. The strength of their will to ignore her presence in the room has real impact.
To close our conversation I ask Sravanti if segregational gender spaces are necessary to counteract the forces of historical and learned sexism. I ask if, were she to have children some day, if she would send her girls to all girls schools. “It would be up to them.” she says. “All women’s schools are not for everyone. You have to have a strong sense of conviction, of female empowerment, to be exposed to the idea.” Even with her own daughters Sravanti would not want to dictate what she thinks is best. She would put tea on the table but if her children are the beer and ping-pong type, then well, so be it.