In 2015, Ruby Rios — sophomore at Bishop Miege High School at the time — arrived late to the first day of her college-level computer science class at Johnson County Community College.
“I got lost, so I walked in late wearing my high school uniform in a room full of 30 college guys,” Rios said. “When I walked into the room, my professor was like, ‘I’m sorry, you must be lost.’ I stood my ground and said, ‘Is this the introduction to C++? If so, I am in the right place.’”
Being the only girl in the room isn’t fun, but it’s, unfortunately, the reality for many girls in STEM, Rios said.
“That was a hard moment for me because the professor didn’t think I belonged in that classroom,” she said. “It made me feel less valid as a human being in that room. It really hurt my self-esteem at the time. When you’re the only girl in the room, some guys don’t feel the need to listen to your opinion.”
Rios, 17, said her confidence has come a long way since then. Now, empowering girls in STEM is one of her biggest passions. A volunteer at the KC STEM Alliance for more than a year and a former cybersecurity intern at Cerner, Rios recently was selected to speak at the TEDxYouthKC event earlier this month.
“My talk was centered around what I called ‘the Katamari effect,’ which is basically the snowball effect,” she said. “Katamari is a video game series I played as a child. The past year, I’ve been able to do a lot of really cool stuff in my community, and I owe that to the point when I decided that I had enough of a passion for girls in STEM that I wanted to take a volunteer opportunity in the summer instead of taking a paid job.”
The volunteer opportunity at the KC STEM Alliance gave Rios opportunities that most high school students don’t get, she said. It was Rios’ passion for girls that began a “Katamari effect” in her life.
“Working with KC STEM Alliance has been terrific,” she said. “It really allowed me to feel like I was doing something valuable and I was making a difference on girls in technology. It really opened a door for me because I began to start finding all sorts of opportunities in my community to get involved. I realized that there was much more that I could be doing for women in tech.”
Rios’ story of being the only girl in the room in a computer science class is more than just an anecdote. Statistically, it’s a problem many women in the United States face today.
“A lot of people in the STEM field currently believe that women don’t have a place in it,” Rios said. “Things are starting to improve, but I believe that is a process that will take much more time. I don’t think we’ll begin to see the improvement that needs to happen in my generation.”
For three consecutive years, Kansas City has maintained its ranking as the second-best metro for women in technology, according to the study conducted by SmartAsset. In addition to being one of only three cities without a gender pay gap, Kansas City scored high marks for its relatively high ratio of tech jobs filled by women.
Yet on a national scale, women are still in the minority in STEM, filling about 26 percent of computer and mathematical jobs.
Being outnumbered has serious consequences to self-esteem, regardless of the overall progress Kansas City has made toward equality, Rios said.
“I have participated in several programming camps since fifth grade,” she said. “At first, I just figured that I wasn’t smart enough or that there must have been a reason there were no other girls in the room. I thought, maybe this just wasn’t a girls’ field.”
Rios doesn’t want any other girl to feel the way she did, she said. Currently applying for colleges in and around Kansas City and beyond, Rios doesn’t yet know what she want’s to do with her life, she said. But, she knows that her passion for women in STEM will live on forever.
“For some girls, obstacles can push them into striving to change people’s minds,” she said. “There shouldn’t have to be roadblocks, but yes, there are roadblocks for girls in tech. But I don’t want that to ever stop any girl. I want them to know that even though there are roadblocks, there are also opportunities and a lot of people out there who want to support girls in technology.”