Fall semester 1995.
I remember walking with a group into the college counselor’s office to discuss post- graduation job opportunities. There were about 10 women in my group and we were all asked to sign in and list our majors and what we thought we might like to do after graduation.
The woman ahead of me signed in and put down “math major,” and I heard one of the counselors say, “You’re a math major? Really?” I still don’t know what, exactly, she meant by that, but I interpreted it as surprise and confusion about a woman who was a math major. I think all of us had the same impression. I remember turning to this woman, the math major, and giving her a surprised look. She said to me in response: “It happens all the time.”
I’m surprised, but also not surprised, to be writing about this experience so many years later.
Representation matters. In 1990-something, there weren’t many women math or computer science majors that I could point to as role models. It’s a good thing that I didn’t listen to people who didn’t understand my field and my interest in digital mapping. No one knew what to do with me and my geography degree, but I think they all assumed that I would become a professor. I ended up using my computer skills and my interest in technology and geography to become a geographic information systems (GIS) analyst, and it’s been a fantastic and interesting career.
Over the 25+ years that I have worked in technology, I have always been one of the few: one of the few women; one of the few women of color. I am, to this day, often looked at as an anomaly — “Really, you’re in GIS?” — sometimes with the added comment: “That’s really cool.” But other times it’s accompanied with an odd look and “Really?” as the second part of the response. There is always a tinge of surprise with that comment, and I always think to myself that it’s really odd that even in 2021, people still don’t imagine women as technologists.
We have come so far, and yet, we still have a long way to go. The number of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers in the United States has increased overall from 8% (1970) to 27% (2019). The number of women in social and natural sciences has increased tremendously since the 1970s, and the number of women in math and engineering has also increased, although much less drastically. Women in technology, however, despite having increased between 1970 and 1990, decreased between 1990 and 2019. We need more women in STEM! How do we get to the point where women are 50% of the STEM workforce?
To address the issue of the gender imbalance in STEM, there are quite a few programs aimed at encouraging girls and young women to engage in STEM at the K-12 level. There are also a number of programs designed to funnel women into STEM majors in higher education, including vocational and college programs. I see articles all the time about how to “get young girls excited about STEM,” and it seems like there is a lot of effort being put into these methods. I see young women being encouraged to participate in clubs, volunteer opportunities for professionals in these fields to serve as mentors, etc. But I wonder, is this enough?
That decrease in women in technology really worries me. We might be seeing statistics that say women are taking STEM classes, graduating with STEM degrees, or receiving certificates of study, but aren’t all staying in their fields of choice. I suspect that there is some attrition just because of job availability, life choices, etc., but these issues don’t explain the full picture of what is happening. Are we doing enough to help women stay in once they leave school and enter the workforce?
Sadly, I think the answer to that question is no: I don’t believe that we are doing enough to help women stay in the technology field once they leave an educational setting. So if we are not doing enough, what else can we do to support women? There are a number of ways, but I can boil it down to three main areas:
Change the environment.
A question that I have been trying to answer lately, with the help of several of my colleagues, is: How can we help women feel like they belong in technology? To some degree, it comes down to the actual environment that we work in. We have to at least:
- Offer training and development
- Encourage support from coworkers or supervisors, and help develop male colleagues into active allies
- Support women (and all staff) in balancing work, life and home
- Offer women paths for advancement at least at parity with male counterparts
This is not just on leaders and HR. All levels and all genders have a part in this process.
Emphasize social relevance and nontraditional “tech” skills.
I’ve read a number of articles about how women will take on a project and teach themselves how to use various technologies to improve some aspect of their community. I recently wrote my own article about several women who did just this. Project-based skill development that has social relevance is a way to develop both personal and professional capacity. What if we were to encourage this in the workplace? Studies show that women excel in these types of endeavors and it may be a way to encourage retention.
Technology does not equal programming or systems administration … necessarily. There are many people who are passionate about technology and its place in making the world a better place, but not all of them aspire to be programmers. Tech-based organizations can’t run with programmers alone. I want to see more employers advocating for women, and really everyone, to take on the roles they are passionate about in the field, even if they are not traditional “technical roles.”
We should emphasize the traditional aspects of technology, including programming and systems administration; but we should also highlight the other skills necessary to build software and run technical groups, and do all the other things that technology organizations do. Program management, writing and communicating, organizing, training are all important skills for technology experts. Let’s expand our idea (and our definition) of “tech” to be more inclusive.
When organizations start emphasizing all of the possible “tech” opportunities, and emphasizing diverse technical skills and elevating them to the same importance as programming skills, I believe we will see more diversity of people in the workplace.
Ultimately, all of the support and skill building isn’t enough. Cultivating professional community is incredibly important and is even more so for women. Women also should be visible to the world, and to each other. When I didn’t see people who “looked like me” in my workplace, I created a local, informal group to create opportunities to see other technical women in government. There are women’s groups for all kinds of areas of technology. There are many lists out there, and if you can’t find a group that you like, start one of your own.
The representation of women in technology occupations matters. Remember the mantra: “If you can see it, you can be it.”
It’s not just a pipeline problem, it’s a career challenge to solve. Let’s continue to encourage young women and girls to find passion in technology, but let’s also foster the same passion in women in the field and find ways to create workplaces and organizations that make this work possible.-30-