UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — According to Forbes, the majority of jobs in the technology industry are held by white men and technology education is not accessible to members of many minority communities. Kathyleen O'Leary is working to change that.
O’Leary, a Penn State junior studying information sciences and technology, has dedicated her undergraduate career to empowering individuals by providing resources and guidance to increase access to technology education.
O’Leary is involved across North America in the management of programs and events that provide accessible education for underrepresented aspiring tech professionals. Her inspiration to begin this pursuit derived from the lack of support in tech education she experienced before she started college.
“When I started learning about technology in high school, I didn’t have anyone,” she said. “There was a huge disconnect and I felt very isolated. I want to draw upon that experience and empower communities.”
Her interest in hands-on events began her freshman year of college after attending Hack PSU, a collaborative case study competition offered annually for students at Penn State.
“[Hack PSU] cemented that I wanted to be in technology because it showed me a worldwide community,” she said. “I had an amazing time.”
O’Leary helped to organize Hack PSU the following year and began attending other hackathons across the country, eventually applying for a coaching position with Major League Hacking, the official student hackathon league that organizes 250 events annually for more than 135,000 students globally. After securing this position, O’Leary began her work as an event manager by traveling North America twice a month and supporting the student organizers by coordinating the logistics of the events.
“Our mission at Major League Hacking is to empower the hackers,” she said. “I’m so thankful because it aligns with my goals. I love the intersections of people and technology, and supporting the people learning and teaching others. That’s what really drives me.”
O’Leary was able to bring her experiences back to campus with her involvement with Code for Her, a Penn State Libraries organization that offers free coding workshops for female and gender-diverse students, faculty and staff. Code for Her strives to provide a welcoming learning environment for people of all backgrounds, free of judgment or intimidation while giving a flexible lesson experience. O’Leary said the feedback from the participating women has been very encouraging.
“Our participants say they’ve become more confident not just with code but in presenting themselves in conversations about technology. That has been so amazing to see.”
While leaders like O’Leary and programs such as Code for Her are driving the industry in a new direction, there are still changes that need to be made, O’Leary said.
O’Leary explained two major aspects of the technology industry that she believes need to change: access to education and an increase of diverse leadership.
“I feel tech education should not be a luxury,” she said.
Tech education is often offered exclusively to wealthy communities and is inaccessible to much of the minority population, O’Leary explained. With the advancement of technology and the increasing dependence on the skills necessary to succeed in the industry, diversity and access to education is more important than ever. She believes the key to diversity in the field is creating an encouraging learning environment for all people regardless of race, sex or class.
“Jobs in the technology industry are high paying, growing, and there are many options and ways to get involved,” she said. “There is huge potential for class mobility and for people who are trying to find a better way of life. But they need a way to learn.”
The way to begin the shift in the norms of the tech industry is to encourage female and other diverse leadership in the field, she added. Alternate points of view are vital for companies to produce products that meet industry needs.
O’Leary believes more women in leadership will lead to female empowerment and involvement in the field.
“It’s one thing to hire female developers, but it’s another thing to promote them to leadership where they can make decisions for the company,” she said.
She encourages Penn State women in technology to seek mentorship and engage with the opportunities offered by the College of IST. She recently participated in the college’s Sit With Me at IST campaign, part of a nationwide movement sponsored by Women and Information Technology that encourages individuals to validate and recognize the important role women play in creating future technology by sitting in a red chair and telling their stories. O’Leary’s message as part of this campaign was “Diversity in tech because we all have the power to innovate.”
Further, O’Leary advises fellow female student technologists to explore new programs that are developing on campus to assist people in finding resources to further their education in a supportive environment and change the tech industry as a whole.
“There is so much offered at Penn State that you can’t find at other universities,” she said. “Designing experiences to be as inclusive as possible will have a big effect on the culture and I really want to be there for that change.”