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Women in IT: A Changing Landscape in Our Changing Technological World

Kate Harveston
Journalist
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In this technology-dependent world, it's clear that the flow of information is key to our shared future. But who gets to help build that future?

 

It should be obvious by now that most of human history has been dominated by men—and the workplace is no different.

 

Although women are breaking into the working world like never before, there are still some unfortunate barriers that exist. One of those is that certain fields—such as IT—are still disproportionately occupied by men, making it more difficult for women to want to and achieve breaking through.

 

The shifting conversation regarding gender equality in the workplace has opened the door for us to start discussing the places in which we can do better. The following observations are the product of several frank conversations with women who have achieved true mastery of their chosen field: technology, and specifically information technology.

 

We're not presenting this content in a question-and-answer format, but each piece of the discussion is centered on the same thesis: that women are severely underrepresented in the technology fields. Of all entry-level positions, just 37 percent are occupied by women. For managerial positions and the hallowed “C-Suite,” the number drops to 15 percent.

 

So why is this?

 

The Tall Poppy Syndrome

 

Sydney Shackelford of Aeon Development Group knows two kinds of discrimination and two sets of biases in terms of how women and minorities are treated in the workplace.

 

Whether she's working completely remotely or on-site alongside clients, she interacts with all kinds of people on a weekly basis. She’s had to face all sorts of off-putting behavior. Not all of it was a product of pure malice. Some of it has to do with deeply ingrained expectations among men in fields already dominated by a male presence.

 

I have a very unique perspective on how women are treated and perceived versus men since I'm also a transgender woman who transitioned nearly five years ago. I worked in the field prior to transitioning, and there are vast differences I experienced from when I presented as male to now, where I present as female.
Sydney Shackelford
Sydney Shackelford

 

Some of her more potent memories involve dealing with men who were literally incredulous when they learned that she was the head of IT and the point-person they'd be dealing with.

 

Of these, she offers this: “I've learned over the years that I have to be much firmer and louder to be heard now than before I transitioned.” To put it more simply, her colleagues didn't expect a woman to occupy this position. By default, they were surprised to find a woman answering their IT calls.

 

Portrayals of firm, uncompromising men are common in all of our creative media: films, television shows, video games, and literature. Almost universally, when we recognize a male hero—oftentimes even an antihero—we recognize them as somebody worth emulating.

 

We forgive their flaws and worship their competence.

 

But, back in reality, women in tech and every other employable field must come to the workplace prepared for utterly anything, armored up and ready to exhibit every bit as much tenacity as the male antiheroes in our action movies—for one fraction of the reward.

 

Robin Leah O'Shell is Sydney’s wife and the co-owner of Aeon Development Group. Our tendency to wish for the brightest of us to fail, or for the least conventional of us to toe the line, is something she knows more than a little about. This part of the human condition has been called the “tall poppy” syndrome. Excellence in any one field is not a zero-sum game though. Neither is having a general sense of compassion for people who are not quite like us.

 

The Handicapper General

 

“Speaking for myself, I have spent an entire lifetime working twice as hard for half the respect,” says Leah.

 

 

There's a short story by celebrated author Kurt Vonnegut in which the titular character, Harrison Bergeron, comes of age at 14 and is tested for intelligence, skills and general aptitude.

 

In this version of our future, exceptional individuals and those who stray from socially prescribed expectations of them based on kind and creed, are "handicapped" until conformity and averageness are achieved.

 

The Handicapper General in Vonnegut's story is as on-the-nose as speculative fiction ever needs to get. But it stands as an important observation on the human condition. We're talking about women in the professional world—and Leah is right when she says women are underrepresented in the technology fields by a significant ratio—but we have a habit of handicapping anybody who's already demonstrated themselves our equal or our better, no matter the industry and no matter the circumstance.

 

Amazingly, one of the strongest takeaways from a conversation with Sydney and Leah is that they've not let any of this experience dull their sense of adventure or compromise their professional journeys and drives to better themselves. When we asked them if they had advice for other women following their footsteps and establishing themselves in IT or another technology field, Leah answered:

 

 

That well-delivered reminder to practice grace isn't about buckling down and “just dealing with” a hostile work environment. In most civilized places, human beings have a right to work in an environment where discrimination is not the norm—no matter what form it takes. Instead, it's another endorsement of an old but frequently forgotten truth: Decent treatment and mutual respect are as viral an idea as any—and can spread as easily in the workplace as anywhere else.

 

The Bigger Picture

 

Our conversations continue with a few words from Dana Marlowe, representing Accessibility Partners. She founded the company and remains its principal partner because forging a trail in technology as a woman unlocked her understanding of the bigger picture: That accessibility to technology and the opportunity it represents is vital for a strong and stable society, and yet everything about access to technology has been shaped by very old social patterns.

 

As a result, women, the differently abled, and many others find themselves effectively shut out of one of the most important frontiers of human advancement.

 

I'm the principal partner and founder of Accessibility Partners, a company that makes technology accessible and usable for people with disabilities. I love how technology can create access where it may not have existed before. Thinking about how tech can level the playing field is why I started Accessibility Partners.

 

As technology has come to dominate our lives and livelihoods and brought new opportunities to industry, we find ourselves more and more in need of practical ways to extend the usefulness of these technologies to people who wouldn't, traditionally, have had access.

 

The promise on which Dana has staked her very successful career as an advocate is that the companies and standards organizations charting our course through advanced technologies will one day soon include the breadth of human needs and perspectives simply as a standard operating procedure.

 

And according to Dana, that includes bringing young students, both girls and boys—and from every walk of life and perspective—into the fold at earlier ages and encouraging them to explore exciting opportunities that interest them within the veritable explosion of STEM-related industries.

 

There's a revolution underway right now with mobile computing, IoT, robotics, automation and green energy at its center. You and I? We need to be casting the widest net possible when it comes to building a new horizon from the bottom up. New ideas come from everywhere and anywhere, no matter how much accidental privilege we are, or are not, born with.

 

We're talking about education and equality of opportunity. According to Dana, practical applications, as always, require civic participation for achieving a new normal.

 

 

In other words, we move the conversation in a productive direction when our government, advocacy groups, and courts debate the extent to which a university must police itself for gender inclusivity in their accepted applications. But a reasoned perspective says that's potentially just too late in many cases. “Fixing” this problem means better civic participation, stronger funding for schools, more engaged parent-teacher organizations and better awareness campaigns for STEM programs and related extracurricular opportunities. These programs should inspire interest—and reward exceptional performance—in the technologies, the sciences, critical thinking, problem-solving and even public policy. Equality of opportunity isn't a radical or controversial idea.

 

Dana continues:

 

 

“It's an unfortunate statistic that there are still millions of people who lack access to broadband internet. Technology is a powerful unifier, and hearing that people don't have access means that they miss out on the communication benefits that are shared by the larger society. This digital divide can be changed by women engineers who are also excellent communicators and empathizers, especially those with a focus in accessibility.”

 

The Critical Mass

 

Dr. Sonja Ann Jones of Bay Dynamics has one of the fullest lists of credentials you could hope for in a field like this one.

 

She’s a senior sales engineer and a professor of mathematics and statistics at California Miramar University. In her spare time, she tutors, does acting, hosting, and public speaking. She’s a strong advocate for women in technology via her published works, social media, speaking gigs, and also through pageants—she was Mrs. Corporate America in 2009.

 

Don't make the mistake of assuming any of this came easily, because it didn't.

 

And she knows what young women can begin doing tomorrow to take a stand and stake out a future for themselves. It's not a small step for women. It's a march.

 

"It is hard being that one woman out of 100 because they don't take you seriously or sometimes even listen to your ideas. I have female coworkers that face this challenge as well. For my dissertation, I surveyed over 225 women in IT—which was hard to find.”

Dr. Jones shared a story that perfectly illustrates that.

 

One day I went to a technology networking event, I walked in and I sat at this table of men. Two guys started laughing. I looked right at them, and I knew right away what they were doing. They were betting each other how many women would show up at the event. I started to tip the scales when I sat down on the bet. About 10 minutes later, another woman walked in and sat next to me. Eventually, one guy at the table beat the other one because there were 11 women instead of ‘fewer than 10.
Dr. Sonja Ann Jones
Dr. Sonja Ann Jones

 

The laughter ebbed with each new woman who walked confidently through those doors and took their place at the table. The image speaks for itself, really.

 

Her best piece of advice? 

 

 

Looking Toward a Brighter Future

 

It’s important to point out and appreciate, though, that discrimination is not the norm in every workplace, and that many employers are making great strides toward becoming more inclusive.

 

Vita Vasylyeva, Sales and Marketing Manager at Artsyl Technologies, says of her work experience:

 

My first job after I immigrated from Ukraine to Canada was at a software development company. The company liked my enthusiasm and creativity, and my career quickly grew from a part-time employee to a full-time manager position. I worked there for 7 years. And now, in my 9 years working at Artsyl Technologies, I’ve met many female IT managers who have earned high respect and top positions in different IT roles. Any company could be the one where you find many associates who will help you to realize your ideas, so keep trying and do not be afraid of making mistakes!
Vita Vasylyeva
Vita Vasylyeva

 

Pooja Aniker, an engineering manager for IT solutions provider Groupware Technology, offers a similar praise of her workplace: “I have not had an unpleasant experience in my career where I felt I was being discriminated against or condescended to. The company where I currently work, in addition to being a very diverse and inclusive company, also has an award-winning group of female executives that are involved in decision-making and in setting the tone for company culture.

 

I’ve been fortunate to have mentors and managers that believed in my skills and abilities and have given me the opportunities to prove myself as an engineer and leader. There are also many organizations and communities that promote and advocate for women in IT, which is very important especially for younger women, so they have mentors and support when they need it.”

 

Pooja also stresses that for women in tech, it is important not to doubt and undermine yourself. She says that in her personal experience, there are situations where it will take longer for people to trust your skill sets, but once the trust is established, the respect and opportunities often can and will come your way.

 

Coinciding with that advice is the reality: a proven big need for women in technology. As the industry works to keep advancing its inclusivity, companies and organizations across the world are looking for ways to get women interested in the field and confident enough to actually seek employment in it.

 

Lital Asher-Dotan, VP of Research and Content at Cybereason, says this can be seen even in the vast amount of new resources that are now available to women looking to get into the field.

 

 

This is a noble goal, and looking at the brighter side of the picture can help motivate more positive change. When we allow ourselves to feel down-and-out too much, it can stunt our progress moving forward. As Lital mentions, there are small improvements being made everywhere, such as the fact that Massachusetts just declared Equal Pay and that people don’t need to disclose prior pay when being interviewed for a new job.

 

Indeed, the US Department of Labor still recognizes that women make 78 cents for every dollar that a man earns, and that number does account for various socio-cultural adjustments and legal factors. The simple truth is that a pay gap does still exist, and the legality surrounding employment is still seriously skewed against minority groups as well. For example, Title VII, which prohibits employers from discriminating based on race, color, sex, nationality or religion in the hiring process, still only applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

 

So although we are visibly heading in the right direction, there are still many places where improvement can be made, and understanding those harsh realities will help us keep moving forward. The importance of building women up also cannot be understated.

 

Lital’s words on the importance of recognition and support do a great job of summing it up:

 

 

So—What do you think?

 

What do you think is the biggest challenge still facing the goal of workplace equality right now? Have you witnessed workplace discrimination, and what did you do about it? How can we all do a better job of making our workplaces more inclusive and comfortable for everyone?

 

Give us a shout in the comments! Let’s chat.

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Author
Kate Harveston
Kate Harveston is a journalist from Pennsylvania. She is passionate about women's issues and social justice, and she runs her own women's health blog, So Well, So Woman.