Techie women seek peers and mentors to transcend minority status.
by Bobbie Hartman, November 2010
Women have been integral to the success of the technology sector from the onset. The world’s first computer programmer is thought to be Ada Lovelace, a nineteenth-century aristocrat who drafted instructions for the operation of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine. Women continue to be leaders in the industry. Luminary Mary Lou Jepsen, currently CEO and founder of Pixel Qi, was cofounder and CTO of One Laptop per Child, an organization whose mission it is to deliver low-cost laptops to children in developing countries. Dr. Sharon Nunes leads IBM’s Big Green Innovations organization, a worldwide team of IT and domain experts who are developing solutions in water management, carbon management, and photovoltaics. The list of influential women in the industry is impressive.
However, women in technology also face difficult obstacles. Even as the technology sector continues to expand, women have seen declining representation. According to 2008 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor, women fill only 25 percent of positions in computer systems design and related services. This fact is disquieting considering that the number has dropped by 11 percent since 1991.
Moreover, more than half of the women in the industry leave the tech sector midcareer (after 10 to 20 years of work), according to a 2009 study by the National Center for Women & Information Technology. This downward trend is especially troubling given that IT is growing more than twice as fast as other industries—expected to produce more jobs than any other over the next few years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor predicts that there will be more than 1.4 million computing jobs available in 2018. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, even when women can secure a position in technology, they earn less than their male counterparts; women earn 93 percent of a male computer programmer’s salary and 92 percent of a male systems analyst’s.
Despite these obstacles, women have built satisfying and fulfilling careers in the IT industry, where an impressive 74 percent of women report “loving their work” according to a 2008 survey from the Center for Work-Life Policy. Women have also grown increasingly comfortable with sometimes being the only member of their gender in the room.
“You get used to it,” says Kelly Harman, president-elect of Women in Technology, a Washington DC-based industry organization. Harman recounts her experience at a recent dinner with colleagues: “There were 22 men and me. I didn’t even notice until the waitress said something. Twenty years ago, it was a little less comfortable to be the only woman in a technology meeting, whereas now they aren’t surprised to see you when you show up.”
Influence and Confidence
The historical minority status of women may have lingering effects in the workplace—and on their careers. Harman sees situations in which women are less likely to give themselves credit for their accomplishments than their male counterparts. “If a woman is in charge of a project and she’s congratulated by her boss and given recognition by her peers, quite often it’s in a woman’s nature to say, ‘I had such a great team working for me. I don’t deserve all the credit,’” she says.
Maria Anderson, database lead at natural gas company Encana, says this extends to the perception of women’s potential influence in an IT organization. “It’s really easy for us to say, ‘I’d like to be the CIO, but I don’t think that I’ll ever get there,’” she says. “I think that happens a lot. We have to be more open to the possibility that it can happen. What we need to say is, ‘That’s my goal. I think it can happen. Here are the things I need to do to get there.’”
Getting into leadership positions can also be fraught with complexity. Becky Alvarez, lead business analyst at CDM, a consulting, engineering, construction, and operations firm, says she believes women tend to struggle against appearing too strong or aggressive, overcompensating for their numbers with force of personality.
“I think some of the challenges that women face come from within,” says Alvarez. “It’s a challenge to stand up, hold your head up high, confidently speak your mind, and stand your ground when you’re giving a presentation in front of a room full of men, especially when you’re being questioned. A lot of times, you’re not being questioned because you’re a woman; you’re being questioned to make sure that the solution you’re presenting to the group is a valid solution.”
But confidence can be its own reward, says Alvarez. She recalls attending a seminar early in her career in which she was the only woman among more than 100 men. “It was great because the guys stepped aside and let me take the machines apart and put them back together again. I never felt that I didn’t belong. But there’s the feeling of, ‘Wow, I’m the only woman in a room full of men,’” she says.
Harman believes that this is a common experience women have in an industry where they are the minority. “There are times when you will be out of your comfort zone. But once you’ve done that and you’re able to hold your own and feel comfortable in that environment, you can do extremely well,” she says.
Changing the Game
The complicated mix of statistics about salary, attrition, and job satisfaction leaves women in the technology industry with unique challenges and few mentors to help guide their careers. Indeed, many women are turning to professional organizations and internal affinity groups for advice in navigating the gender landscape of the modern technology workplace.
There are dozens of regional, national, and international organizations created by women, all providing leadership development, networking and mentoring opportunities, technology education—and perhaps most important—the opportunity to learn from other women who have forged successful careers.
Working through gender pressures in the technology industry—be they internal or external conflicts—can be a daunting task to tackle alone. Consequently, many women are turning to their peers and mentors for support and advice about professional development and career direction.
Women in Technology is an example of a formally structured mentor/protégé program, offering networking events, special interest groups, access to job postings, and support for girls interested in technology and related careers. Networking with other women in the field has provided invaluable guidance and practical insights in her own career path, says the organization’s Harman. “There are so many different ways that Women in Technology helped me,” she states. “Networking is so important on a lot of different levels.”
Early in her career, CDM’s Alvarez was able to get advice and counsel from a mentor.
“Having a female mentor, especially in technology, helps you realize that you may be in a more predominantly male working environment, but it’s not an exclusive situation,” she says. “It just happens that more men do this work than women. She told me that you’re not an outsider. Have confidence in yourself. I belonged there, and nobody was going to take that away from me—and nobody ever did.”
Other industry organizations, while not specifically focused on gender, can also benefit women. Technology user groups provide valuable career resources for scores of women. Alvarez, for example, has been involved with the Oracle Applications Users Group (OAUG) for many years. “OAUG is the perfect place to go to meet people in a very nonsolicitous, nonthreatening way. You can network, find mentors, and talk to people about things you’re working on,” she says.
For their part, users groups have responded to a more diverse membership. OAUG, the Independent Oracle Users Group (IOUG), and Quest International Users Group, for example, have been hosting a Women in Technology Forum for the past few years at COLLABORATE, an Oracle users conference. The forum, open to both men and women, includes a networking breakfast and panel discussion.
“It was a great opportunity for the professionals attending the conference to spend some time thinking about their own careers,” says Buffy Ransom, vice president, Oracle Global Support, who moderated the panel of women technology professionals. “We provided a relaxed environment for people to learn from strong leaders, share success stories, and hear how they handle the challenges of a high-tech career.”
Companies are also making an effort to support a more diverse corporate culture. Many corporate diversity programs track and report the number of women in the workplace and in management positions, giving their employees and external stakeholders a picture of the workplace environment and efforts being made to promote gender equity in the workforce.
The Oracle Women’s Leadership (OWL) program is one example of how companies are working to help women overcome obstacles in the workplace. Cofounded in 2006 by Titina Ott, vice president of organizational effectiveness at Oracle, and Patricia Cureton, director of human resources at Oracle, OWL provides a venue to hone leadership skills, share best practices, and connect with others. “The Women’s Leadership program has made a significant impact on Oracle,” says Ott. “Cultivating the talents of all our employees promotes innovation, drives our standard of excellence, and helps us maintain our competitive edge.”
Employees are also taking up these efforts on their own. Alvarez, for example, belongs to an internal women’s forum at CDM, which provides networking and mentoring opportunities and seeks to foster greater rapport within the organization. “It’s a great place to gain insights about issues specific to our company,” she remarks. “It’s very nice to see our company doing this. It seems like women’s forums are becoming more prevalent, and I like that.”
Open to Possibilities
Even if it takes venturing out of their comfort zone, the advantages women gain by working in the technology field are well worth it. Average salaries in technology are higher than in many other sectors of the economy, and the industry has been relatively stable during the past few years of economic volatility. The industry has a history of being open to new ideas and embracing change, and in the twenty-first-century economy, technology remains a dominant force in the global marketplace, creating more and more jobs.
“Every job has its negative aspects, and technology is no different than any other,” says Harman. “But there are so many advantages in the tech sector. I think it’s a great field. I wish I were just starting out in the tech sector now, because there are so many exciting things happening.”
“I see it everywhere,” says Alvarez. “Technology, sales, coding, developing—pretty much the entire gamut. I don’t see anything that a woman who sets her mind to it couldn’t do in technology.”
“I’ve never felt that I have been denied opportunities because I’m female,” says Encana’s Anderson. “I think that there are opportunities out there for women who are interested in them, just because there are so few women in IT. I think there are probably more opportunities in technology than in other occupations.”
“The sky’s the limit,” adds Harman. “There’s no limit to what you can do and what you can learn—male or female. The great thing is that you can take your career anywhere you want to take it. There’s nothing you can’t do.”