Don’t fret guys, I could’ve sworn female coders were unicorns too. Until I met Sunny. “Statistically women consist of only 18% of all computer science graduates in America,“ she explains as we sit outside drinking smoothies in the blazing heat. The ratio seems disheartening, especially when the odds of becoming a woman in computing are not in our favor. “The first day of class always feels like you’re in the wrong class,” she says of being one of two women in her program at Brooklyn College Scholars. As I spoke more to Sunny about her research on the gender gap it became strikingly clear: Women aren’t encouraged from a young age to pursue math or science the same way men are. So, how can we motivate women to pursue male dominated fields? If y’really want to know, Sunny can give you some insider scoop being that she just accepted a killer job at J.P. Morgan as a software engineer. Read on future techies.
On growing up with immigrant parents:
“Coming out of high school I had no direction at all, since my parents are immigrants and meaningful careers seemed out of the question for them. My mom's from Syria, my dad's from Israel and they both came here for better lives. I was expected to do what they did when they were younger—to just get married. The career is for the man. The man provides while you have kids and take care of them. My mom didn't even graduate elementary school; she went straight to work in Syria. My dad got to go to high school and came here when he finished the army. Because of that they just expected me to do the same thing as them, that's what they knew. They said my goal right now is not to think about my career, it's to think about the guy I want to marry. They said I’d have to pay for college on my own because it wasn’t a decision they supported. I didn't ask them to be an astronaut, I just wanted to do something and they weren't so happy about that.”
Discovering her love for math:
“ In Flatbush high school they mostly promoted AP art and photography to students like me. But I loved math. My grandfather was a math teacher; my dad is like a human calculator, he's really good with numbers. After I took AP Calc I knew I was good at math but I didn't think there was a future in that, it's just like everyone says, "What am I going to do with this in real life?" That's how I treated it and I never thought to pursue it.”
Deciding on College and Majors:
“I fought my parents to just consider the idea of college, but I'm the oldest and I'm super involved in my house so they guilted me out of trying to leave. But I wasn't giving up on at least going somewhere. So I aimed for Barnard, which was my dream school despite my circumstances. I went to college guidance and he was like I don't think you're going to get in. I applied early and got rejected; it was the most devastating thing ever. I didn’t come to school for a week. Instead of comforting me, everyone said ‘you see? It’s just not for you.” After being miserable in premed when people asked me if I would consider majoring in math I said I don’t want to be a teacher. But they were like, who said you have to be a teacher? The entire finance world thrives off of math.”
Finding her passion for computer science:
“I finally decided on a math major. I had a friend from high school that had similar interests as me, we were both free to study whatever we wanted but he was a guy so he was encouraged to try engineering. He took programming when he was trying out engineering and was like wow this is my thing. So he came to me and said we both love math and we're both on the same path, why don’t you give it a try? I laughed and said definitely not, computer science is for boys I haven't seen one girl in my lifetime say she's into technology or into computer science. I show up my first day and my professor is talking about things that seemed …. relevant. But there was so much behind it, it was interesting. As the semester went on it was so cool to have so much control over real problems. You would never imagine there's 8 million ways to have the same thing show up on your screen.”
On the gender gap in computing:
“The gender struggle came up time and time again because there were no girls in computer science. I went to my advisor and said what do you think? I'm thinking of declaring computer science as, maybe not instead of math, but as a minor. They're like the last time I heard of a girl in computer science was years ago. And I said, okay and? They're like you sure you want to do it, you sure you'll do well? And I said why not? I'm doing well now and I enjoy it. I ended up double majoring in math and computer science but they were right; I was one of two girls in every one of my classes.
Everyone recognizes that the gender gap exists but not a lot of people are actively trying to combat it. The fact that it even exists derails girls that are interested in technology. I once got a perfect score on a midterm, the highest grade in the class, and my male friend said I was lucky the professor liked pretty girls. No guys would ask for help in class because they figured I’d just be bad at computer science but those same people looked at me funny when I got nominated for Upsilon Pi Epsilon (the international honor society for computer science) and the Association for Women in Mathematics. I ended up presenting my research from my thesis on the gender gap at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Asheville, NC to a room full of men. I think they got the point then.”
On her internship trajectory:
“I applied to an unpaid internship at a teeny start up out of a WeWork with no experience. Two guys ran the company and it was just me and one other intern. They heard my story and saw passion and took a leap of faith. But the other girl was from NYU, knew what she wanted while I'm just trying to figure it all out. It was a super fast internship but now at least I had something to show for my skills.
I was also doing a lot of events to promote engineering for women. My first real in was when I got accepted to a program called Unlock Your Potential, at UBS. They chose girls [after two rounds of interviews] from departments across the firm to help with career development but also to prepare them for coming into such a male dominated field. It was really great talking to people who believed in you because I had none of that. For me it was an accomplishment, someone recognizes that I have potential.
The last part of Unlock Your Potential was super day, which is the final round of interviews for an internship. I hadn’t done a technical interview before but I was determined to prove that I was capable. I got the call from UBS offering me the internship and then two hours later I got the same call from JP Morgan [where I interviewed too]. To get both of them was crazy.”
On teaching herself programming languages:
On accepting her internship at JP Morgan:
“Only a handful of people supported me. My best friend and her family always looked out for me. Her mom had a struggle similar to mine; she went to Barnard and made a life for herself when she was told she couldn’t. She came to me and said she had met a women in the community on Wall Street. So she connected us and nothing ever came out of it, I guess she just got busy. And when I showed up to my JP Morgan interview months later, the interviewer introduced herself as Sarita Bakst. The name sounded so familiar, her accent even sounded Syrian but I felt like it was so inappropriate to ask. But she was so bubbly and friendly and made me feel super comfortable so at the end of the interview when she asked if I had any questions—[and ironically she had a similar history we both graduated Flatbush and Brooklyn Scholars]—we realized we were connected before.
I accepted the internship at JP Morgan and at the last day of my internship I got a call that they'd love to have me back as a full time technology analyst with a focus on software engineering. Over the summer I got a scholarship to go to the Grace Hopper Conference, it's a celebration of women in computing in Houston, Texas. It felt so surreal because when you're coming from an environment where you're one of two girls, you would never think you’d meet ten thousand women from all over the world interested in technology as much as you are.”
On the Boys’ Club phenomenon:
“The industry is still not completely ready to accept women. They call it like, the 'boys’ club.' At JP Morgan I was the only girl on my floor, forget my team. Some men don’t make it an environment that women want to be in but others admit that some of the best engineers they’ve met are women. Personally, I'm not intimidated by men. I grew up like one of the guys always. As girly as I am now I was a tomboy growing up. But when you have everything working against you—your parents, your teachers, no one thinks you could do it so you start to second guess, maybe it is just a boy's thing. But I knew I was good at it.
I don't know what I had in me to keep pushing. Success seemed so far away when I was figuring things out. I'm very fortunate to have drive. Watching my parents basically have nothing, it's not like they lived the American dream. And I'm still worrying about their own future; it's not just mine anymore. I have to make sure they're good, that my sisters can go to the colleges they want to go to.”
On Inspiring her sisters:
“My sister just got into Girls Who Code, it's a program for high school students so she’s spending her summer at Goldman Sachs learning how to code. I would sit her down and tell her how she has to listen to the pros of this career but she’d just roll her eyes. Once she got involved in her own weight loss journey she became excited about helping others do the same so I said, ‘why not do that using technology?’ So she’s determined to be an engineer for Nike.”