Big Interview: Aleisha Amohia and Angitha Ramesh.

Undergraduate students

VUWWIT is a group for undergraduate students who identify as women or non-binary and are studying computer science, engineering and other STEM subjects at Victoria University. They provide opportunities for members to socialise with each other and industry in a supportive environment and skills workshops that aid members in their undergraduate life and beyond. We got to chat with one of the group’s founders and their current president about all things diversity and inclusion.

Aleisha Amohia – VUWWIT founder

How did VUWWIT come about, when was it that you realised there was a need for such group?

VUW Women in Tech was started as a casual group by a few Engineering students in their final year. I joined the Executive a few months into its existence while I was in the second year of my studies, then took over leadership of the club in Summer and had us established as an official university club in 2018. This meant that we could get free university venue hire and apply for grants and funding. VUWWIT reached 200 members while I was President and is now in its third year as an official club.

I looked for a group like VUWWIT when I first arrived at university. There were other technology-related clubs, but they didn’t have many (or any) women on their Committees and didn’t put on events that catered to my interests. I was also struggling hugely with my confidence – I didn’t feel comfortable asking for help in my classes because I was afraid of reinforcing someone’s biases about people who look like me. The students around me (mostly men) seemed like they’d been coding their whole lives and were breezing through the assignments while I didn’t even know where to start. All of my lecturers were men. I wanted to socialise with my peers and find women with similar interests to me, but there were few or no opportunities to do this. I felt like I didn’t belong in engineering and computer science, even though for the past year I had already been working as a Developer at Catalyst IT, an open-source software company.

When I was able to see such stark contrasts between my environment at Catalyst IT and the environment at university, I realised I needed a group like VUWWIT. I needed to find other women in tech – and let them know that there are more of us out there.

What experiences have you had that highlight how imperative diversity is?

I have experiences most days that highlight how diversity is imperative. On a social level, I often deal with my success, knowledge, and experiences being questioned and over-analysed, for absolutely no reason. I need to explain myself, prove myself, and push through assumptions made about me before we can get to having a real conversation about my work.

For a long time, ‘tech bro’ culture made the industry pretty unwelcoming for anyone who wasn’t a white man. That energy still very much exists in many STEM environments, but now we’re having a problem where a panel will include one woman, or will be made up entirely of white women, and the organisation believes they’ve achieved diversity.

These choices set a precedent. All women representation (if all the women are white) at an event does not mean the industry has achieved diversity or is now inclusive – but it sure looks that way from the outside. I’ve spoken with other women who joined tech thinking that things have improved because of representation examples such as this, but were then roped into projects and spaces that were not inclusive or safe, and expected to ‘fix’ things just by being there.

I’ve also experienced that feeling of disappointment when I’ve been excited to attend a ‘women in tech’ panel and then none of the women on the panel looked like me. It’s discouraging if the women who are described as tech role models, leaders, or influencers, cannot answer questions from a perspective or background that relates to mine. And it highlights how true diversity is still not taken seriously by many STEM companies.

Aleisha Amohia

It’s clear that currently there’s a lack of diversity in many STEM-related professions, (with statistics to back this up and leadership roles still being dominated by the white male demographic). Having recently been a student, do you think there’s more diversity in the groups of people coming through uni?

There may have been an increase in diversity in science, mathematics, or design, but I haven’t seen much more diversity in the cohorts coming through engineering or computer science pathways. If there has been, it’s very slight, and the numbers tend to drop off as you go up in the levels.

I think many of the factors preventing women or people from other marginalised groups from studying STEM in the past are still prevalent today. I’ve noticed that young people who enrol to study engineering or computer science are already sold on it and are super excited to get started, which is great! However, women or Māori are usually turned off the idea of having a career in STEM at a very young age for several reasons, so when the time comes to look at their study options and if a STEM subject isn’t already their top choice, they won’t even entertain the idea. There are deeply engrained systemic problems that have an impact very early on in a person’s life – there’s a lot of work to do before we will see a significant and sustained increase in diversity.

Diversity and inclusion go hand in hand. Without inclusion, companies fail to leverage their diverse talent pool, incorporate different perspectives/approaches, and consequentially – they fail to maximize their success. In your experience, what is the best way to ignite inclusion?

Inclusion needs to become part of the culture. For long-term change, I encourage companies to look at their diversity policy (if they have one), hiring practices, outreach and recruitment activities, communications strategy, Board members, managers, and leaders. Are you hiring people that can improve diversity and inclusion from within? Before that, is your company a space where it’s safe to explore and implement these initiatives at all? Are you providing or funding training and education about Māori language, customs, and the Treaty of Waitangi? Is your hiring pool broad enough? Do your vacancy advertisements grab the attention of people who don’t look like you?

In the short-term, branch out and support the work that so many other groups are already doing. Work with organisations such as VUWWIT, that aim to represent and support minority groups in STEM. Attend their events, sponsor their projects, and advertise vacancies within their memberships. Everyone benefits from highlighting these voices.

We saw you featured in the great article by the Spinoff – These 25 young New Zealand women are changing the world. How does it feel to be recognized as one of these inspirational women, and how do you plan to continue this work in future?

I feel incredibly honoured that my name is on this list, among so many talented, dedicated, hard-working women. It’s astounding how many of the Y25 women are contributing energy and creating change on their own time, in voluntary roles. I am so excited to meet and work with them!

At the moment I am working with the National Council of Women New Zealand, hoping to help as many unheard and under-represented voices as I can. During my VUWWIT presidency, I realised how political our work was and how there were more causes I wanted to contribute to. I am also able to connect with and work with some great organisations through my Developer role at Catalyst IT. Over the next year or so, I plan to work closely with groups and people that have a particular interest in making STEM more inclusive for Māori and Pasifika communities. And then later in the future … who knows where my work will take me? I just know that I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and the connections I’ve made, and I’ll continue to use them to improve STEM spaces for all of us.

Angitha Ramesh – Vuwwit president

How was your passion for diversity and inclusion sparked?

I didn’t realise the extent of the diversity imbalance in Computer science/Engineering until I had walked into all my classes in first year, and struggled to find a girl to befriend. I had wished there was a group where the few girls in these classes could come together and so when I heard about VUW Women in Tech, I was extremely grateful. I wanted to be a part of the committee so that I could help run events that I wanted to see if I was a member and reach out to others. 

What sort of things does VUWIT do to help attract more diverse groups of people to study STEM-related courses? And how do you support these people during their studies?

VUWWIT runs an outreach event and partners up with organisations that run outreach events to do our part in encouraging more minorities to think about higher education in STEM. Our outreach event is Tech Day for Girls which include four interactive workshops to expose students to aspects of technology they may not have the opportunity to explore at school. 

On the other hand, university students are supported by our club through the networking, workshop, and social events we hold for them. Networking events give students the chance to meet employers and help them land a job or internship. Workshops help students develop skills, prepare for exams, or explore STEM practically. We usually work with employers for workshops, so it’s also a great way for students to network. Finally, social events are intended to blow off some steam, have fun, and make some friends!

Angitha Ramesh

What have you found is the biggest challenge in the work the group does?

I find that gauging what our members want is typically the most challenging as well as finding the right time to hold the event. We find that a lot of members feel like some of our events are held at an academically busy time for them. We try our best to organise events that we’d like to see if we were members, as well as avoiding busy times to the best of our knowledge but it is impossible to make everyone happy in that regard.

What have VUWWIT got planned for the rest of the year? 

VUWWIT has an outreach event for high school students on July 4th. We have AccenturePikPok and SSS all running workshops on the day as well as a virtual reality workshop that we’ll be organising. WITCon is on 28th August 2020. It’s a student-led conference that brings together industry and students to discuss social and technical topics regarding STEM. We have speakers on the day and our speaker submissions are now open! It’s a great way to gain some experience in public speaking and no prior experience is required. Here’s the event link where we’ll post the ticket link soon! We also have some social events lined up, like a game night and a ball but we’ll announce those later in the year! 

What would you say to a someone from a minority group, wanting to study a STEM-related course, but put off by the lack of diversity and inclusivity in their field of interest?

You are the diversity that these STEM fields need, so maybe it will be harder for you than others, but you’re paving the way for more diversity even if it doesn’t feel like it. With VUWWIT, I saw all the women and gender-diverse students at our events and I could see all the diversity or, in other words, people like me. I would say that if the university you want to attend doesn’t have a group that actively promotes diversity las VUWWIT does, then you should make one. You should be that change because if you feel that way, there’s definitely someone else who does too, so why not team up? When you have a group like this, you’ll feel like you have people who back you up and that makes a world of a difference. I’m not saying it won’t be hard, I’m just saying you can make it easier for yourself and for the people to follow. 

Thank you to Aleisha and Angitha for taking the time to talk to us.

If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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