Reshaping tech pathways for women: Dr Mahsa McCauley's game-changing non-profit
Dr Mahsa McCauley, Founder of She# From embracing technology at an early age to pursuing an education in Iran and New Zealand that culminated in a doctorate and a Google scholarship, Dr Mahsa McCauley is on a mission to change the tech landscape. An expert in AI and machine learning, and director of Women in Tech at Auckland University of Technology, she is also the founder of She# (She Sharp). As a charitable trust, She# brings professionals together with university and high school students with the aim of encouraging more women into the tech industry.
A vocational education
Dr McCauley’s interest in tech grew from the time she built a computer with her father. “He gave me the opportunity to build a computer from scratch, helping me to assemble all the components and giving me the confidence to challenge myself,” she says.
Finding that she enjoyed this practical side, she studied a bachelor’s degree in software development engineering and then a master’s in computer architecture hardware, before moving from Iran to New Zealand for her PhD in AI and natural language processing (machine learning). It wasn’t until partway through her tertiary education that Dr McCauley found herself in a minority. Education is highly valued in Iran and, during her bachelor’s degree, there were more women than men.
“In postgrad this changed though,” she recalls. “I was one of only two women in my master’s course and in New Zealand I was the only woman at my university studying a PhD in computer engineering.” As a lecturer in New Zealand, she found that fewer than 10 per cent of her students were female. “When you are in the minority there’s an increased pressure to prove your skills; you have to exert double the effort. There is a lack of female role models too, which is difficult as it’s so important to have representation and inspiration through those you can see.”
It’s so important to have representation and inspiration through those you can see
Dr McCauley won a Google scholarship in 2013; she was the representative from New Zealand in the Asia-Pacific region and one of the very few women in engineering. The scholarship was in memory of American computer scientist Anita Borg, who had been passionate about growing women in tech, visualising a fifty–fifty split by 2020, before her life was cut short by brain cancer. “They showed us a YouTube video of her life and vision and it brought me to tears,” says Dr McCauley. “It was super inspiring and prompted me to work to change things too.”
On returning to Auckland in 2014, Dr McCauley started a small Auckland-based group of university students as a platform enabling women in tech to share, learn and connect with each other. This original group evolved into She# (SheSharp), a New Zealand non-profit organisation dedicated to empowering women in tech. The name is a play on C#, the programming language. Starting with around 25 people initially, membership has now grown to 1800.
She# runs events alongside corporate partners; typically a panel of senior leaders will talk about challenges and successes including what it means to be a woman in tech, and there are also networking opportunities. Next, there is usually a small, hands-on workshop. No background knowledge is required but it does involve teamwork and group work, with the host, mentors from She# and teams sharing their learnings at the end. Dr McCauley stresses the importance of involving students in the learning process, “As the saying goes, ‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.’”
The She# dynamic is triangular, bringing together industry professionals, university students in their later years of study and high school students. Most events are open to all groups. "Uni students get to develop practical skills and have the opportunity to build their networks, professionals get to give back to their community as mentors or guides, and our high school students get a glimpse of what it’s like in the workplace.”
Changing the tech landscape
The purpose of She# is to reshape perceptions of the tech industry. “As women we are often drawn to using tech as a tool to help people,” says Dr McCauley. “Many women don’t want to sit a room coding but that’s not what tech careers are all about, so we need to change the way we market them. Tech careers are about creativity and human-centric problem-solving. And it’s important to know that we as the users of the tech need to be engaged in creating it, otherwise we are missing out.”
Dr McCauley has no shortage of examples of how She# has made a positive impact on the lives and careers of women in technology. One She# ambassador, Nicole, started out as an accountant. After joining She# 10 years ago and attending its events, she switched to data science and joined a tech company. “She found her passion through a really unconventional pathway,” says Dr McCauley.
Another female, Maisie, was a high school student who won a She# challenge to design a mobile app. She enjoyed it so much that she pursued a career in tech and is now a full stack developer. “She lives overseas now,” says Dr McCauley, “but when she found out we needed someone to help manage our website she reached out to see if she could give back and do this remotely.”
Encouraging women into STEM careers
Dr McCauley points out, with the tech sector changing so rapidly and every aspect of life impacted by tech, there’s no need to be an expert in order to find a role. “Even the technology I used when I studied my PhD is now redundant.” Her advice is simply to pitch in and try new challenges.
Every girl should have an opportunity to see exactly what tech can offer before they make their career decisions
For those seeking job security, she recommends cyber security. AI, she notes, will be a game changer, along with machine learning. “These are the fields that are important. Software development and programming are important to know but not enough to sustain a career alone.” Dr McCauley has ambitions of her own, too. “I’d love to take She# to every city in New Zealand – we are going to Hamilton and Christchurch this year!
Every girl should have an opportunity to see exactly what tech can offer before they make their career decisions. We want to change the dialogue of ‘we aren’t good at maths or tech’.”
To find out more about She#, visit www.shesharp.org.nz