Turning ‘Girls Who Code’ Into Women Who Work at Viacom

Viacom’s multi-year tech internship program helps young women launch careers.
Sep 16, 2019 12:00 PM ET

By Stuart Winchester

Lauren Clark and Emily Lo have a lot in common. Both entered Viacom’s Girls Who Code summer immersion program in 2015, its inaugural year. Both just wrapped up their third year of the company’s long-term internship program. And both major in computer science-related fields at upstate New York colleges.

And in multiple years of college-level technology instruction at two separate institutions, each has had exactly one female professor.

This is not unusual. According to Girls Who Code, women hold only 25 percent of computing jobs, and half of those workers say they lack female role models in their careers. To help correct this imbalance, the organization is leading the movement to embed young women with tech-oriented teachers and mentors at the critical moment when they are setting their career trajectories.

To address the dearth of females in technology, Viacom established a goal four years ago to hire select college graduates who completed the company’s multi-year summer internship program into the company’s Media and Technology Services group.

“My goal for this was to say, ‘Okay, I have to start somewhere,’” says Viacom Chief Technology Officer Dave Kline. “These girls are fresh out of high school or soon will be, and I wanted to encourage them to really take an interest in the tech field and continue what they started here. When they go to college, study it, help populate the world with people who want to do this. Be encouraged, be enthusiastic about it.”

A good investment for both sides

Each summer, the girls cycle through a successively smaller rotation of assignments, narrowing their interests to focus more intensively on areas where they excel. The “code” part of Girls Who Code is really a stand-in for a range of tech jobs, and both Clark and Lo have found their lane in their third summer as interns.

Lo, who has been participating in tech camps since she was a child, is angling toward mobile engineering after working with the iOS- and Android-compatible Flutter coding language at Viacom over the past two summers. Clark, who joined the initial summer program despite a self-proclaimed aversion to math and science, has narrowed in on cybersecurity, drawn to the real-world, real-time rush of protecting online systems from malicious actors.

“This summer, something was said in the media about a country, and then the next day that country just spammed the network,” Clark recalls of her time with Viacom’s Information Security team over the summer. “And so that was really cool. What I saw on the news had a direct effect.”

By guaranteeing what amounts to a multi-year tech apprenticeship with a likely job at the end, the internship grants Lo and Clark a certain peace of mind in the uncertain space of college.

“When I tell people about the program, they’re like, ‘Wow, how did you get that? Programs like that exist?’” says Lo. “It’s definitely really special.”

The program aims to recruit diverse cohorts and expose them to successful women already working in tech, which can serve as a powerful affirmation that identity is not tied to career options.

“One of the people who came in was Dominican, and I’m also Dominican,” remembers Clark. “And it was just really great to see someone who looks like me at Viacom, and who’s killing it. Because not that many people who look like me are working in this field.”

Four summers in, the program has been a win-win for the girls who have earned a spot on the roster and for Viacom.

“If I can, starting next year, hire two each year, by the end of 10 years I will have hired 20 millennials who we’ve helped get into this field and who already understood my environment,” says Kline. “So when they come in I don’t have to train them. They go right to work. It is a good investment on both sides.”

Support at every stage

“In order to close the gender gap in tech, we need to be sure that girls are supported at every stage of the pipeline – from when they first learn to code, to when they are entering the workforce, and as they’re growing within it,” says Girls Who Code founder and CEO Reshma Saujani. “The more girls we can expose to tech jobs, to women in tech roles, to companies that are willing to commit to change – the better.”

Kline concedes that the internship program is not a fix-all, but one part of a more wide-ranging effort that is both ongoing and in need of expanding. He is actively seeking out new partners for women-focused recruiting, including Columbia University.

“We need to be conscious about diversity – and not just gender diversity,” says Kline. “We need to speak up at organizational functions, we need to speak up internally. If we really want to be a diverse technology organization, we can’t just say it. We have to start acting more like it.”