Propelling women in tech is a marathon — and a sprint

March 22, 2022 | By Cort Williams

Nuseiba Al-Harazi, a sophomore computer science major at George Mason University in northern Virginia, spent her winter break at Mastercard, where she worked closely with Miri Baker, an Arlington, Virginia,-based software engineering director in the company’s Data & Services business.

They’re nearly a decade apart in age — Baker graduated from Georgia Tech with a computer science degree in 2015 — but both say that women were vastly underrepresented in their classes and coding clubs.

Already something of an introvert, particularly when so outnumbered by men in the classroom, Al-Harazi says the Mastercard micro-internship — part of an expanding program by the organization Break Through Tech to accelerate gender equity in tech — helped her step out of her comfort zone.

“It was so nice to finally talk to a (virtual) room full of all women and not men,” Al-Harazi says. “There is an unmatched energy and sense of power when a group full of women come together, and I’m incredibly thankful I was able to gain this experience.”

It’s crunch time for women in tech, where female employment and seniority gains in the sector have been threatened by what has been termed the “she-cession,” with women dropping out of the workforce in higher numbers than men — often because the burden of child care and elder care falls disproportionately on women. Four in 10 women in tech report they have been held back from pursuing career changes during the pandemic due to home or family pressures, according to a 2021 report by Kaspersky.

"There is an unmatched energy and sense of power when a group full of women come together."
Nuseiba Al-Hazari

One way to change this trajectory is by growing the pipeline, says Judith Spitz, who in 2016 founded a New York City-based public-private partnership to increase the number of women pursuing tech careers. Now known as Break Through Tech, the organization brings together both sides of a city’s supply chain — universities and businesses — to propel women into computing degrees and technology careers, pairing them with a network of women to develop and learn from.

One of Break Through Tech’s marquee programs is the three-week “Sprinternship” in computing or artificial intelligence, which prepares students to master the technology skills and gain the industry experience they need to launch their tech careers. The organization has expanded the model to Chicago and the Washington, D.C. metro area, and later this year will debut in Miami.

Mastercard, a founding partner in Break Through Tech, has sponsored 25 Sprinternships in its New York City Tech Hub and Arlington offices, and mentors 40 to 60 women each summer as part of the organization’s Summer Guild Bootcamp.

During Al-Harazi’s time at Mastercard, she collaborated with members of the Architecture team to improve single sign-on for client groups. The enhancements make authentication more seamless for Mastercard customers and strengthen the security of the payments system as a whole.

“Even though we were all college students, we weren’t treated like interns at all,” Al-Harazi says. “We were given the independence to work at our own pace while being assigned the correct personnel and resources to get everything done.

“They kept telling us that they are our cheerleaders and want us to be successful, even if that means taking our passions to another place to intern next summer. That meant so much to me.”

The Mastercard program also included a speaker series with executives, leadership training, tech talks about front-end and back-end development and data science, and mentoring from female executives.

“Course correction needs to come from every section of the industry,” Baker says. “It starts with girls not feeling unnatural answering a question in their math or science courses. Once their voices are spoken and they feel supported, we must continue to create an environment that women choose to come back to and can truly thrive in.”


Banner photo, clockwise from top left: Nuseiba Al-Harazi, Thea Planas, Shruti Sekar, Neha Acharya and Karen Pari Sejas, all took part in Break Through Tech's winter Sprinternship at Mastercard, lending their skills to real-world projects and gaining work experience. 

Cort Williams, contributor