To be or not to be … a woman in IT

By now, it’s common knowledge that women are underrepresented in technology fields.

At one time, people believed that women chose not to participate in IT careers, but I strongly disagree with this view point. I believe that if we encourage girls in computer science from an early age and support their careers as adults, they will gladly join and advance the industry – just as they once did.

You may be surprised to learn that in the 1920s to 1940s, women were the workforce behind computers. In WWI and WWII, they did calculations and contributed to the invention of the first electronic computers. American computer scientist Grace Hopper – “Amazing Grace” – invented the first compiler for a programming language.

Many years later, I started my own path to an IT career. My father worked in IT, and we had a Commodore 64 as our first computer. I was lucky enough to have a Sega Game Gear (showing my age) and this had me hooked.

I was also inspired by James Bond and the role of Q. I found the character to be quirky and quick-brained, and I liked watching the new and ground-breaking technologies imagined in the Bond stories/movies come to life – like my Pebble watch, straight out of a Bond film.

In school, I had classes in computer science, often the only girl surrounded by 10 to 15 boys. I discovered that I had to get used to being in the minority from an early age and became accustomed to it. My first degree was in Geography, but I excelled at spatial, statistics and data science. I went on to do a master’s in Geographical Information Systems.

When I started my career in 1999, my father discouraged me from entering IT, but I found my way there anyway 12 years later. At that time, Google had created such a disruptive force on the spatial industry that spatial was no longer special; it was just another data science that could be mined, utilised and understood – or misunderstood. So into the IT sector I ventured.

It’s interesting to think about what led me to pursue this path and, indeed, this passion when other women decided against it.

According to a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, four of the 10 most popular master’s degrees received by men in 2011-12 were what you’d call technology focused. For women, none were.

None? That’s worrying. Think about the technologies we’re creating today that will inform our future. As we create machine learning and robots that integrate into society, do we really want those technologies to be primarily built by men? How will that affect the outcome?

Those same education numbers show that most graduate degrees taken by women are in education, nursing, social work, counselling and similar fields. These careers tend to offer more flexibility than the typical technology job, which is perhaps one reason women choose them. From a personal perspective, flexibility is key, indeed something I personally had to fight for and am extremely grateful for. But not all women are able to achieve this.

A study by the University of Texas at Austin seems to second this idea. According to the study, young women are not forgoing STEM fields because of their lack of skills. Rather, they choose other fields, even though they excel in STEM subjects.

The lack of support networks could be one reason. In India and China, where extended family often assists with childcare duties, women have more parity in IT.

While it is a sign of strength and character to stay in a field you love despite the challenges and adversity you have to overcome, I think IT leaders need to pave the way for female success.

We should mentor, coach, learn and develop from those around us, no matter what age we are or where we are in our career. We should push for more options in the field, as options go hand-in-hand with flexibility. And as leaders, we need to inspire a passion for IT and enjoyment in the work. Passion, as I know, can make the difference between a young woman pursuing a promising, challenging career in IT — or taking her talents elsewhere.

The debate about women in technology will certainly go on. When my own girls are old enough to enter the workforce, I wonder if the world will be ready to address these questions and provide them an answer.

In the meantime, I dream of a world where we empower everyone’s passion for IT and help bring it to reality. Just imagine the amazing technologies we could create then.


Sarah James was ANZ lead for Authentic Leadership in DXC and an advocate for DXC’s Women in Leadership and STEM. Prior to leaving DXC in September 2017, Sarah founded the Empowering Future Leaders blog and was its primary author. With over 15 years of experience in the world of IT, Sarah’s specialty is spatial information and includes integration on projects as diverse as mapping volcanoes in Hawaii to delivering high-tech police vehicles.

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Comments

  1. This is so spooky. This week I spent some time with a wordpress expert. We had a conversation about technology and we both said how excited we are by the advancements in technology. Were I to have my time again and be at school now I defo would be doing IT. Her view was that because you can work on technology anywhere it actually creates flexibility – she’s just about to have her third child.

    Not only does IT democratise access to information and services it also emancipates women as well. The reason women don’t choose it is because it’s a closed shop where ‘language’ and ‘geek speak’ as well as other things act as barriers to entry. Not sure if this a deliberate or subconscious cultural norm to keep it that way?The focus is on the means not the end – were it the other way (and you mentioned WWI and WWII which galvanised creativity, invention and need driving movement away from the norm) might it be different? Who knows, but as you say, there’s more to this than skill.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Timothy Armstrong says:

    Nice article Sarah. I especially like the catchy title. It is hard to change gender numbers in any industry. Your post and role as advocate for “Women in Leadership (WIL)” are the best ways to begin the ground swell for change. It is also up to each individual person responsible for team building to provide (where possible/practical) a balanced gender blend on projects.

    Like

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