The amazing woman replacing a slave owner at Yale

Editor’s Note: Reshma Saujani is the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. She is the author of “Women Who Don’t Wait in Line” and is a graduate of Yale Law School. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

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Reshma Saujani: Yale's renaming of Calhoun College to memorialize Grace Hopper matters

Bestowing a particular name on a community shows the world what kind of legacy that community wants, she says

CNN  — 

Who an institution memorializes says a lot about what it stands for.

Reshma Saujani

Earlier this month, I was proud to see Yale University, my graduate alma mater, stand for women’s advancement in technology when it renamed Calhoun College – named for John C. Calhoun, vice president to John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson – for Grace Murray Hopper.

In Yale’s case, each of its 12 residential colleges is a microcosm of the wider student body; students are assigned to one of the colleges as freshmen and remain affiliated until graduation. Bestowing a particular name on a community shows the world what kind of legacy the community wants for itself. Calhoun was a white supremacist who passionately promoted slavery. Grace Hopper, who completed her master’s and doctorate degrees at Yale and has been called the “queen of code” and the “mother of computing,” was a pioneering computer programmer (in addition to a rear admiral in the Navy).

In one move, the renaming denounced a culture of bigotry and racism, creating a space for hidden figures like Hopper. The decision draws a line marking what’s tolerable and intolerable and what’s valued. It shows us that systems can and do evolve toward progress. Celebrating Hopper helps enhance women’s voices and recognize women’s contributions to the technology field.

Yale’s renaming is the latest in a series of overdue recognitions for Hopper, who died in 1992 at age 85. President Obama awarded her a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying, “If Wright is flight and Edison is light, then Hopper is code.”

At Girls Who Code, we know symbols and role models play a significant role in sparking and sustaining girls’ interest in technology. We often say, “You cannot be what you cannot see.” It’s a reminder that whom we shed light on (and whom we don’t) matters in shaping our students’ perceptions of what they can be. It’s why we create space in our curriculum to lift up diverse role models.

The prospect of Grace Hopper College at Yale also reminds us how important technology is in shaping our collective future. Computing jobs are some of the fastest-growing and highest paying in our country, and yet as a joint report by Girls Who Code and Accenture found, of the 500,000 open jobs in computing in the United States last year, only 40,000 new computer science graduates were able to fill them. Of those 40,000 graduates, only 18% were women. Computing skills are a critical path to security and prosperity in today’s job market.

Girls Who Code was founded on the belief that access to a computer science education could bring women into a thriving innovation economy and give families a real shot at the middle class. We believe the only way we can make this economy work for all of us is by making sure girls don’t get left behind in such a critical field. Through focusing on girls in middle and high school, where we’re seeing the highest drop-offs, our research has found we can triple the number of women in computing and grow their share of computing jobs from 24% to 39% by 2025. We feel strongly that Hopper, who pioneered this field before women were even admitted to Yale as undergraduates, would applaud our mission.

Memorializing Hopper’s work significantly opens pathways for uplifting women’s contributions to the field and the products we use day in and day out. I’m amazed everyday by the projects and ideas our girls create. From games like “Tampon Run,” which address the menstruation taboo and gun violence, to websites that document the life of an undocumented immigrant in the United States, to an app that helps women of color find hair products, our project gallery shows how girls from across the country are using technology to solve problems in their day-to-day lives and make a positive impact on the world. In doing so, they are empowering themselves to be not just consumers but creators of technology and paving the way for a new generation of women to take on the field.

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    It’s decisions like the newly named Hopper College that make me proud to call Yale my alma mater. Memorializing Grace Murray Hopper signifies a cultural shift and sheds light on the role technology will play in enhancing women’s voices for generations to come.