STEM Story: Audrey Pe
Updated: Dec 20, 2020
Could you please introduce yourself and tell us a couple of your goals?
Hi, my name Is Audrey. I am 19 years old and the founder and executive director of WiTech, which is short for Woman in Technology. We are a global youth and nonprofit organization that aims to educate, inspire, and empower youth to break gender barriers by using technology to make a difference in society. We did this through hosting the first woman in tech conference for students back in the Philippines, and we have a woman in tech teach program that brings tech equipment and tech tools to low income communities in the Philippines with little to no knowledge about technology. These projects have also been replicated and have been the basis of our chapter expansion program in which we have 14 different chapters in 6 different countries that make use of the network of WiTech and the resources that we have in order to further the Woman in Tech teach programs to achieve the mission of WiTech. Overall, everything we do as an organization with our 150 members is to help build a world where all youth, regardless of their gender or socioeconomic status, have access to technology and the potential to use it to make a difference in their communities.
When and how did you realize you were passionate about coding/tech?
My interest in tech started in middle school. During middle school I was in a local school with the national Philippine curriculum and this curriculum asked us to take a computer class, but it wasn’t about programming at all, it wasn’t about startups; it was about how to use Microsoft Word, Office, Excel. Honestly, I didn’t find it that compelling and didn’t think much of tech as a potential career, much less like a potential passion until my teacher decided one day that we would go off the curriculum and she introduced us to a game where a snake had to navigate through a maze using dots that represent the lines of code. I remember that that was the first time I realized that apps, websites and especially social media websites I had used on a pretty regular basis were made using code. I had this mini breakthrough in my head that there is an entire world of technology I rely on on a daily basis without really knowing anything about. That led me to ask my teacher if there would be further programming in the classroom, and when I was told that unfortunately, we would not be learning further because it is not part of the national curriculum, I went online, and looked up cs tutorials. That’s what I did for the rest of middle school and high school. I would literally look up “free computer science tutorials,” “how to learn how to code?” and that was a part of my journey in technology: a very DIY path of looking for resources when it wasn’t immediately accessible to me and my community. The point at which I thought “tech is something I want to go into,” is when I started to read articles online about technology for social good and started comparing those stories to statistics about the lack of women in tech and the lack of tech accessibility globally in low income communities. I just had this realization that it’s so inherently unfair that only 50% of the population is getting the support, the motivation, and the resources to go into tech. And even that 50% isn’t diverse in a socioeconomic status. Here at the Philippines, at least, technology is still considered something very middle to upper class. I really want to help change that; because when we talk about technology in terms of it being the future, what good is that future if it’s only limited to a very small group of people?
How do you plan to continue working on and improve your tech skills in the future?
That’s a really good question! My tech skills are always a work in progress; I do not identify as a talented programmer; I am far from it. I’m somebody that has to put in a lot of time and effort into learning how to code and I believe being at Stanford is such a unique opportunity to explore technology whether it’s through CS or through the intersections of tech and the humanities. I’m looking forward to taking a couple of CS classes but also getting to think about the societal impacts and ethics of technology. As much as we have very talented programmers out there, and I respect them for it, I do think we need more people who understand technology and also the social implications of it.
How do you think your work as an organization has helped yours and other communities?
WiTech’s impact has grown into something I’d never expected it to. In 2016, we started as a blog that I was maintaining from my bedroom; I was the only one writing, and I was featuring different stories of women in tech from all around the world. I didn’t think we’d end up hosting a woman in tech conference, going to low income communities and bringing tech education, expanding, getting chapters from all over the world…These are things that all happened because we listened to our community, because we asked questions, because we kept in touch with them and because we saw the need for a woman in tech conference. We realized that those events and conferences were only accessible to the middle and upper class. We opened chapters because we saw people reach out to us via social media asking about how to bring WiTech to their countries. All of these things - the 1,100 students impacted from our events, the 100 students taught how to code for the first time, the 14 chapters, the 4-chapter coordinators – comprise of the WiTech community now. I never thought that we’d be able to make that impact but I’m so glad that we have, because throughout this process I’ve been able to experience some of the most heart-warming stories. For instance, the youngest girls attending the WiTech conference back in 2018 reached out to me a couple of months later to ask if she could interview me for a school essay. When I asked what the prompt was, this 12-13-year-old girl told me she needed to interview someone who inspires her. This made me tear up, because I realized that more than just starting WiTech and giving events, we were making a tangible difference in people’s lives. When I read the final draft of the essay, she was talking about how the work I’ve done through WiTech, she’s been able to get this community and resources she never thought she could have before. To think of the other people’s stories is something that keeps me happy and excited every day.
As a woman, founder and executive director STEM, have you faced any challenges, and if so, how have you overcome them?
I’ve faced a fair amount of challenges in STEM and tech, specifically. Among them are sexism and ageism. I’ve touched upon sexism a bit in the sense that there are a lot of stereotypes about girls in technology, but also in the Philippines there is the understanding that if you go into STEM, you become a doctor or an engineer. Tech still isn’t a very popular field; it’s not as normalized in the older Filipino community. With ageism, on to other hand, I’d face it when I’d go into conferences or meeting rooms and I’d be the youngest person there by 10-20 years. I faced it when people joked “Oh shouldn’t you be in school right now?” I faced it when people turned down partnership proposals because they didn’t want to work with youth groups. All of those struggles strung at first, but I think they made me, as cheesy as it sounds, a stronger person because I’ve been able to whether these rejections, especially since they are inevitable in the nonprofit space or in any type of founder journey.
What advice would you give to young girls aspiring to become a part of the STEM world?
I love this question because a piece of advice I’d give to any young girl that wants to go into the STEM world would be to simply remember that by being you, showing up, doing the work, adding to that representation, you are paving the way for future girls to envision these careers in tech without any lens of a gender stereotype. To ne that’s so meaningful because I hope that the work that we’re doing for WiTech, ensures that the younger generations face less of a hurdle in pursuing careers regardless of the genders they used to be tied to. With that said, I know that pursuing male dominated fields could be a hard task, and you might not receive a lot of support from school or from your immediate community. Know that communities like WiTech exist online and are here to help and support you in case you need resources or people to bond with. Communities are there, all you need to do is look them up and find them. Lastly, regardless of gender, remember the inherent privilege of having an internet connection. Back home in the Philippines, we have 13 million Filipinos who don’t have access to wi-fi. I’m constantly reminded of the privilege of being able to talk to you online and being able to communicate with my team via our Discord server. I think when we’re surrounded by many people with similar resources, it’s hard to remember that it’s not like that for everyone. Just be conscious of the privilege you have by having access to tech, maximize it, and use it to create social change within your little pocket of the world. That’s my advice.
Interviewed by: Yasemin Sukal
Graphic by: Smyrna Davalath