Women in Technology

Hear us Roar


by Erica Rios

Erica Rios applies interdisciplinary approaches to technology assessment, management, and creation.

If I were a web page, I would be tagged technologist, activist, and chicana_feminist.

I have two degrees: a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Computer Science. Both have helped me carve out an interesting career niche. I am a Web 2.0 evangelist who applies web technologies for the purpose of community building. That is a mouthful, isn't it?! In other words, it means I do some coding, a whole lot of project management, and, at every juncture, I find ways to bring diverse groups of people together through this promised land known as the Internet.

My daily life is not much different from other girl-geeks' lives in Silicon Valley. The alarm on my cell phone wakes me up. I dash off to Starbucks for my morning brew. The day only truly begins after I have had a chance to check my various email accounts, the latest 'it' social networking sites (can't get enough Twitter and LinkedIn right now!), and read news from the dozen or so RSS feeds I follow. The afternoon is filled with meetings, the occasional moment of coding genius, and revisions to my latest and greatest plan to reach new people through a web site.

What sets me apart is that I have learned to harness the power of my difference.

Case in point: just days before being invited to write this article, I receive an email from the UC Davis Chicana/o Studies alumni list to which I subscribe. It contains a link to the Lumina Foundation's interactive report on Latino's educational attainment entitled Camino de la Universidad (The Road to College). I click on it only because there is a promise of it being interactive.

I am happily met with a fast-loading Flash page full of rich images, beautiful sounds, and intuitive navigation. As I check out their source code, the narrated report continues to play in a different browser window. I listen to the stats, For every 100 Latino elementary school students, 48 drop out of high school and 52 graduate from high school. Of those 52 that graduate, only 10 earn a Bachelor's degree and only 4 go on to earn a graduate degree.

I stop cold in my tracks. It has been a long time since I have thought deeply about how I am the exception, not the rule. I toggle back to the report to watch the story being told.

I have always lived my life at the intersections of rights, responsibilities, and choice. I remember being as young as 5 years old, but fully understanding the concept that I have a legal right to an education. And that that right would enable me to fulfill the responsibility of caring for my family. I recognized that every day I had to choose to stay on a path that was not paved for Mexican-American girls.

My understanding of what my "rights" were and how I choose to fulfill my responsibilities matured over time. In the eighth grade, my government teacher Mrs. Evelyn told our class that the Constitution guaranteed that any individual 35 years or older could be President of the United States. I was quite shy back then, but was so shocked by the idea that I needed clarification. I asked her if it included women. When she answered an enthusiastic "Yes," my instinct was to ask her if it also included Chicanos, but I held back out of worry that I would be ridiculed. I figured it was probably true.

I walked out of the class that day with the idea that everyone was afforded an opportunity to make the rules, even people like me and the people of my neighborhood. I imagined how I would change the rules as President of the United States and asked others what they would do differently if they were President. I couldn't contain my excitement. I even asked my friend to be my Vice-President. To this day, I still refer to her as my V.P.

About seven years later, I am talking to my undergraduate mentor Professor Adaljiza "Ada" Sosa-Riddell. She tells me how she entered college as an engineering major and moved over to political science because the social pressure of being a woman of color was so great. None of the men wanted to study with her. She approached professors for assistance and, rather than providing her with resources to succeed, they suggested she find a different area of study. There was an obvious presumption that she was not smart enough to be in their department. She decided to move to political science and in the mid 1970s, she became the first Mexican-American woman in the history of the United States to earn a Ph.D. in Political Science. I was floored. The '70s? Why did it take so long?

Disappointment sank in as I realized that although we are granted many rights, they are meaningless if no one takes responsibility for ensuring they are properly extended. Sure, we have a right to be President, but will you or I ever likely be extended the opportunity to be in serious running? No.

Ada left me with an understanding that I, like her, will be the first Chicana to do many things and that I could not shy away from the challenges. I have a responsibility to myself as a woman, as a person of color, and as someone born to working-class people to pioneer paths that are not laid down for us.

This lesson from Ada was an important one. I am glad I received it before starting my professional career. Though my days are extraordinarily similar to many girl-geeks across the Valley, they are also extraordinarily different. Many days of my career, I find I am the only woman, person of color, or non-Ivy League college graduate in the room. The choices we make in those rooms often impact hundreds or thousands of people. As groups of similar people often gravitate to similar solutions, I harness the power of my difference by engineering and articulating alternative solutions. I offer pragmatic approaches that meet the same ends with significant potential to attract a greater diversity of people.

I am tagged technologist because I exercise my right to engineer solutions.
I am tagged activist because I work to fulfill the responsibility I have to myself and to my community.
I am tagged chicana_feminist because it is the path I was born into and simultaneously pioneer.

Series creator and editor Tatiana Apandi Recommends: Registering for the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computer Conference that will run from October 14-17, 2007 in Orlando, FL: http://www.richardtapia.org/2007. Maria Klawe will be there! Visiting the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science: http://www.sacnas.org.

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