A New Era of Corporate Responsibility: Thomson Reuters Champions STEM Advocacy

A New Era of Corporate Responsibility:

Thomson Reuters Champions STEM Advocacy

In recent years, the plight of women in tech has been been plainly highlighted by the widening pay gap in Silicon Valley, the funding disparity for female entrepreneurs and the serious absence of female executives in the industry. This stems (pun intended) from the lack of girls getting involved in computer science and engineering from an early age. This is not news. What is news, however, is the push from select corporate big shots to engage girls with tech in their youth in order for a company’s gender divide to shrink in the next decade.

Initiatives to combat the divide are slowly starting to emerge across corporate firms to encourage female involvement in these industries. But the progress is slow, and the programs aren’t getting a ton of press coverage. Girls in the gaming industry may not be the most common occurrence, but according to experts is the proactive impetus many need to get engaged with the world of tech beyond their Instagram newsfeed.  

Laila Shabir (second from left) at the Girls Make Games workshop at Thomson Reuters HQ

The fact that the gaming industry currently only employs 8 percent women greatly troubled tech entrepreneur Laila Shabir, who launched her response to the disparity, an educational summer camp called Girls Make Games she founded in 2014, which teaches girls aged 8 to 16 how to code their own video games in 2014. According to the Shabir, at the end of the camp, girls were crying at the prospect of returning home. “My eyes just popped,” she says, underscoring the hugely underserved population of young women interested in tech, but feeling left out due to its male-oriented positioning in many schools. “I had no idea this was so important to so many girls, and this was something they weren’t getting.”

“You go to a games convention, and it’s like walking into a fraternity,”

– Laila Shabir, Founder & CEO, Girls Make Games

It wasn’t long before Shabir’s innovative concept caught the eye of Katherine Manuel, Senior Vice President at Thomson Reuters, who had a similar passion project. After climbing the ranks at the international media and financial firm, Manuel has decided that rather than resting on her laurels, she wants to advocate for changing the status quo, hoping for a “trickle up” effect that would eventually hit corporate America.

“It was time to use my platform for good so I was sort of searching for ‘what is that good?’ and ‘what are opportunities to give back?’ I think we have to push to have more women in higher roles in technology to create that sense of community here and we will continue to promote people who are more diverse.”

– Katherine Manuel, Senior Vice President of Innovation, Thomson Reuters

In a moment of happenstance meets chance, Manuel’s husband forwarded her an email from one Laila Shabir, thanking him for his contribution to a GMG Kickstarter campaign (which he decided to support after coming across on social media). “I read it, and it was just so inspiring that I wrote her an email,” Manuel says about her reaction to reading about Shabir’s powerful vision. “She laughs now but I think the subject line was something like, ‘Let’s Change The World Together.’ And so she immediately responded back and I thought I had reached a star.”

Manuel then began a dialogue with Shabir about how TR could be helpful to Girl Make Games and spread the word of her work. “I think gaming is an entry point for girls to get excited about broader computer sciences and even STEM in general,” says Manuel. “That then led to me really look at creating that umbrella of the Future of Innovation, and how important it is to have inclusivity, diversity and innovation in the pipeline.” Out of their discussion came a vision for creating pop-up GMG workshops, which saw outfits as far as TR offices in Toronto, Canada, and most recently at the company’s space in Times Square in Manhattan. Given the company’s large global footprint, and GMG’s need for both space and lots of computers, it indeed proved a symbiotic relationship. And one, both say, will continue into the future.

Katherine Manuel, SVP of Innovation at Thomson Reuters, says "we've got to get these little girls excited about technology and not thinking it’s a ‘boy thing’"

According to Shabir and Manuel, the push to get girls more interested in STEM will eventually help push our global economy into the future, not to mention give a leg up to companies looking to bring a more diverse workforce into the fold. For Shabir, it was an HR discrepancy that first led her to identify the issues faced women in STEM.

“As we were building our games studio (she also runs parent company LearnDistrict), we were trying to hire women and it was almost impossible,” says the young Pakistani immigrant who faced an uphill familial battle in her own life when she decided to go to MIT. Looking for 20-something graduates to help build out her team- an integral part of Shabir’s vision- proved immensely more difficult than she expected. “When I asked people why it was so hard, the response was ‘women don’t want to do this. Girls don’t want to play games.’”

For Manuel, bringing girls into the fold means a more diverse workplace and a broader spec for innovation. Outside of her work for the company, she mentors women in computer science at undergraduate level. She notes that while most computer science entry level courses begin at a 50/50 gender ratio, by course end, the number of girls graduating is a mere 18-20 percent. This, coupled with her work with GMG is indicative of a bigger and longer-term vision at Thomson Reuters, who last year committed to 40 percent female leadership across the company by 2020.

And according to Manuel, the impetus to this realization was a personal one, namely one she noticed when her children hit 4th and 5th grade and began to be leveled into math class. “The teachers were leveling math and didn’t really think much of it, just sort of like who is picking things up at this level or that level and this speed and that speed,” she says. “And I just started asking questions, like ‘I would like to see the gender break down of how you’re doing this.’ The data was appalling.”

“I sat with teachers and the head of the school and had them walk through the data and teachers jaws were dropping,” she says, continuing, “they didn’t realize that they had subconscious bias themselves, they see it in others but don’t do it themselves, I think looking at collections of data and putting it in front of people, the more awareness it brings. ”

This is an unfortunate but glaring truth. Girls begin at ages as young as five years old to disassociate themselves with concepts or activities that are viewed as ‘for boys.’ So Shabir decided to take upon herself to make gaming fun, appealing, and specifically targeted to young ladies between the ages of 11 and 16.

Unlike others, who have presented a meagre lip service of the women’s movement Manuel, is very much putting money where her mouth is. “It’s corporate responsibility in a sense of, how are we going to build diverse and inclusive workplace,” she says. “Not necessarily next quarter, but in the next 10-15 years.”

“And, it’s hard for corporations,” she continues. “I think we are on the hook so often for quick results and quick turns and so again, so much focus seems to be on the later stage recruiting of diverse talent but [we have] to care more about that pipeline and have a longer-term vision around those messages – it’s good business.”

One interesting takeaway from her still-growing concept, Shabir has found, is the girls create games with a grander worldview, specifically changing the gaming space to be more inclusive of women, not to mention more impactful. “Girls want to make games more meaningful than just entertainment,” she remarks. “They make games with a purpose, like ‘I want to teach this, or I want to make my player happy or I want to my mom play this because she’s depressed.” Rather than simply creating a game, for example, to imagine war scenarios or grand fighting scenes, the games the girls create begin to address issues, which in itself is an exceedingly hopeful indicator of things to come.   

Amy Corcoran

Head of Content at SWAAY: Amy is an Irish writer, avid foodie and feminist with an insatiable appetite for novels and empowering women's writing. She has enjoyed calling Dublin, Paris and now New York her home.

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