Fourth-year student serves as an inspiration, advocate for women in tech

September 28, 2018

By Christian Stafford

Dedicated to paving the way for more female representation in the field of technology and computer science, Jessica Merritt, a fourth-year computer science and biology major at Northeastern University’s College of Computer and Information Science (CCIS), has had the recent and prestigious privilege of being named to the Anita B Organization Board of Trustees.

The Board is a group of distinguished technology professionals from across the computing landscape who are dedicated to expanding the impact of women in technology. According to Merritt, the board advises the Anita B Organization and assists in directing the organization’s efforts to assist women working in the field of technology.

The Anita B Organization “believes the demographics of the people creating technology should reflect the demographics of the people using the technology,” Merritt said. The organization supports women in technical fields, cooperating with other organizations to help train the next generation of women in technology. Of the many programs dedicated to helping women in tech that the organization runs, the biggest is the Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest women in tech event. A yearly conference attended by around 18,000 women in technology, the Grace Hopper Celebration draws nearly 5,000 students annually.

“I received an email from CCIS about applying for a scholarship to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration,” said Merritt, “I was very lucky to receive sponsorship from the university to attend and I fell in love with the conference.”

Merritt, who said she tends to “gravitate towards activities with a mentoring component,” certainly exemplifies that quality with her academic and extracurricular record at Northeastern. She first got involved with Girls Who Code, an organization that organizes clubs and summer camps that provide girls with opportunities to learn about computer science in an empowering, female environment, Merritt said.

According to Merritt, over 90,000 girls have gone through a club that has been organized through Girls Who Code. “Every program teaches a variety of programming skills that they need to create complete projects and the clubs aim to break down stereotypes of what a computer scientist might look like,” said Merritt, “This organization is on track to achieve gender parity in entry level computer science jobs by 2027.”

Girls Who Code did not have a club on Northeastern’s campus when Merritt first learned about the organization. She, along with the help of Doreen Hodgkin, the former Associate Dean of Administration and Student Affairs in CCIS, was able to get a Girls Who Code club started on campus.

“My involvement in Girls Who Code and the Anita B Organization started when I attended the WeCode conference at Harvard University during my sophomore year. It was my first large-scale experience of the women-in-tech community and I was blown away after hearing so many successful women talk about their ongoing research and work to close the gender gap,” Merritt said. “One of the keynote speakers mentioned Girls Who Code and I immediately knew I wanted to be involved. This began a four-month process of me working to get the club restarted on campus and researching women-in-tech communities,” she said.

After helping to get Northeastern’s Girls Who Code club up and running, Merritt said she began looking for more inspirational events and organizations, which eventually lead to her involvement with the Anita B Organization.

As the only girl in her high school AP computer science class, Merritt said she cannot thank her high school computer science teachers enough for helping her find her true passion and leading her to her current success. “I was the only girl in my AP computer science class, but having a female teacher made a huge difference in how I thought about myself in that class,” Merritt said.

Merritt said she is looking forward to continuing to advocate for women who seek to work in the field of technology. “I’ve seen girls light up in the Girls Who Code club when they realize that they’ve completed something all by themselves and I love helping with that,” she said. “I’m looking forward to advocating for women in tech on a bigger scale this year.”