Paying it forward for the next-generation of women in computing
Waterloo Computer Science student dreams of being a tech leader and building bridges for marginalized groups in tech
Waterloo Computer Science student dreams of being a tech leader and building bridges for marginalized groups in techBy Beth Gallagher University Relations
Keer Liu was 18 years old when she left China to study computer science at the University of Waterloo with a dream of becoming a leader in the tech industry. She wanted an exceptional foundation in computing but her real dream has always been to lead.
This year, Liu will have an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, experience building a successful startup with her classmates, and six co-op work terms at some of the world’s best-known technology companies.
Working in companies such as Apple, Uber, Slack and Coinbase transformed her education, but Liu says the connections she made — and the female role models she met — while working in an industry still dominated by men have inspired her to not only lead but to build bridges for other young women in computing.
“I was able to get a co-op term with Apple on the basis of a recommendation from my supervisor at Slack,” Liu says, who starts full-time at Apple after graduating. The recommendation came from a female engineering colleague. Liu says the experience of reporting to three women during co-op terms in San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver shaped her vision of leadership.
“Female software engineers and managers have empathy for younger women just entering the field,” Liu says. “They have the engineering skills but they also know how to mentor young students like me. I want to be able to do that for others.”
For Liu, the power of connection and community started early in her studies when she became involved in the Women in Computer Science group in Waterloo’s Faculty of Mathematics. There she was introduced to other women studying computer science who shared their own stories of experiencing unconscious bias, feeling like imposters in the workplace, and the fear of speaking up in meetings. Liu, who speaks three languages, said she had to push herself to be more assertive, in part because she was a woman, but also because English is her third language.
According to Statistics Canada, only 18 per cent of people working in engineering or computer and information systems jobs are women. In the U.S., software developers, with a median annual wage of $103,000, continue to be in high demand but only 18 per cent of those jobs were filled by women in 2017.
The disparity persists despite research that shows diverse teams perform better. A recent analysis by McKinsey & Company found that organizations in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. In the case of ethnic and cultural diversity, McKinsey’s 2020 report, Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, found that companies in the top quartile for ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed those in the fourth quartile by 36 per cent in profitability.
As of fall 2019, women represented 36.5 per cent of the undergraduate population in the Faculty of Mathematics and 24.4 per cent in the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science. At the graduate level, these numbers are 32 per cent and 18.9 per cent respectively. These percentages have been increasing over the past decade, thanks in large part to the work of Women in Computer Science (WiCS), Waterloo Women’s Impact Network (WWIN), the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing (CEMC) and Women in Mathematics (WiM).
Part of Liu’s journey at Waterloo included time on Tutturu, a startup that won $50,000 in the University of Waterloo’s Velocity Pitch competition in 2020. Liu is currently supporting the Tutturu team as a marketing lead but the time she spent learning to pitch an idea and the connections she made with other entrepreneurial students in Velocity has expanded her network. Beyond the Velocity community, Liu met other students interested in starting ventures in an entrepreneurship course offered through Waterloo’s Conrad School of Entrepreneurship and Business.
Liu is taking everything she’s learned about entrepreneurship into another role as fellow for MiraclePlus, an incubator based in China. She is building connections between people with promising startup ideas in Waterloo and MiraclePlus, the incubator founded by global tech leader Lu Qi, the former chief operating officer at Baidu and a former executive vice president at Microsoft.
As an international student, Liu hopes to continue to build a global community of women and other marginalized groups who are as passionate about tech and transforming the world as she is. “I’ve watched women who lead and they really know their engineering and computing, but they are also very smart about building teams. My dream is to one day be as good as they are.”