Mediaphyter – A Communications Cocktail

Women in IT – Be A Change Agent (Part One)

I once worked at a company that had its own quarterly women’s consortium. At the start of the first meeting one of our senior male executives made the joke, “I like the odds,” in reference to the female to male attendance ratio. After about 30 minutes of rah-rah-sis-boom-bah, we were handed company-branded hair brushes and sent on our way. I was unimpressed.

I felt as if the effort was for corporate show more than for substance. There was no action. There sure as heck was irony, but there was no action. I walked away still craving the tools to truly make change and wanting to see our female leaders step up and help the rest of us be heard. It never happened. And that’s when it occurred to me that I might have to make it happen myself.

One of the organizations I’ve recently learned a lot about is the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Founded by Lucinda Sanders, an amazing woman, NCWIT is a different kind of women’s organization in that it “encourages its members to undertake institutional change within their organizations.” It has specific alliances or corporations and organizations — academic, workforce, entrepreneurial, K-12 and social sciences — that are focused on active sharing of resources and successful programs from a national community of practitioners dedicated to fostering the paths of technical women of all ages and giving them a booming voice in the industry.

I recently had a chance to speak with Lucy, as well as Brad Feld, chairman of NCWIT and founder of Foundry Group. In two separate conversations, I was able to voice my biggest concerns:

  • There aren’t enough voices; so many women in my demographic (middle management) tend to believe that organizations are only designed to mentor younger entrants into the field, and that those organizations must be led by senior executives or entrepreneurs
  • There’s a lot of “in-stereotyping;” for example, while I am somewhat technical my background is in journalism and marketing, but I’ve had women technologists diminish my role for that reason; we need to support each other regardless of our technical prowess
  • Some women’s organizations do little else than communicate with each other and are not active in the industry at large — at least not in ways that can fuel wide-spread change. While social groups are great, my personal desire is to get outside and do more.

While I am passionate about all of these points, right now I want to focus primarily on the first one. So I ask myself and I ask my readers: Who are your female leaders? Who within your organization do you think represents how most women should be perceived? Who has the strength to make change?

Is it you?

The first time someone asked me those types of questions my reaction was, “Well, I could be one of them, but I am only a ______.” I went along believing that in order to have strong visibility within the IT community one needed to be an executive or founder. Look at all of the technology publications with award programs for women — 95 percent of them are focused on entrepreneurs or executives. In security there are several well-known female researchers who are highly technical and also set a great example, but that is also a small percentage. What about the rest of us?

I discussed this with Brad about which he made a critical statement:

“The most impactful people tend to be the doers in the organization. We can’t rely solely on entrepreneurs, who may have very little time, to make change happen. Anyone with a strong voice can be a role model. It’s easier to get started when you’re a leader but real change happens when you build momentum across a much broader spectrum.”

Do you hear that, ladies? There is room for us. We “doers” who sit in our cubes or in front of our laptops for 12+ hours a day can be those change agents. But first we need to determine what we want to change.

Here’s my list:

  • More in-corporation programs for mentoring younger female entrants into the workforce, including expanded or revised internship programs that require a certain amount of hands-on tech hours
  • Technical-to-non-technical “buddy programs” where women in engineering team with women in sales or marketing to learn about the value and the intricacies of each others job, therefore growing respect and improved communications
  • Incentive for women (and men, for that matter) to get involved in hero or role model programs for younger technologists; a lot of Fortune 1000 companies have these types of volunteer incentive programs, but the majority of smaller ones do not
  • Teach women in technology of all levels on the importance of getting involved in lobbying campaigns and organizations that push for education and improvement; even if its to volunteer at a fundraiser here and there, do it. Do SOMETHING. Remember the work that was done to lay out the path before us and help to lay out a path for those who follow.

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten so far. I have the ideas and now I need to lay out the how. I need to determine how I can break these ideas down into simple action items supported by fundraising and communications efforts in order to make them happen. If I can do this with NCWIT, fantastic, but if not I will find some way to achieve my goal. This blog post represents not only part one in a series of writings, but part one in my exploration to lead from the middle and impact positive change.

What are YOU going to do?

28 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Let me ask you something:

I like to hire women for my helpdesk and I want to mentor them. But I do this, I think, because of my own stereotype. I want to believe that woman have better sensibilities than men, that they can deal better, in general, with chaos-over-the-phone.

But, as I said, I think it’s a stereotype. Certainly not all women are like this and certainly not all men are the opposite.

So, this is a dirty little secret of mine and I thought I’d ask you: Am I doing more harm than good?

Comment by tcv

Great article and right on point. I’ve participated and led a few different women’s groups in legal and technology organizations and although there were some moments of greatness, I also saw plenty of whining (wah…we’re women… life is hard) from participants who were never quite willing to take action. I’m hoping you’ll experience more greatness than complacency. Best of luck!

FYI – At the end of your post, the automatically generated “possibly related posts” listed articles on “Female Fertily – Conception – Medicine and Health”. Um, not that related and a little obnoxious (from the app, not you!)

Comment by Jennifer Breazeale

An excellent article that’s very timely for me. I’ve just started to realize this is a topic I care about and need to do something to help.

My first step is to help organize the first Seattle Girl Geek Dinner (, and to start to talk more openly with the other women in my company about their experiences. But I’m definitely eager to know what other positive steps I can take.

Comment by Stevi Deter

I think there is also alot to be said about your concern #2. I am semi-technical, but I work on improving that. My background is in Marketing and Publicity and, like you, I have had others diminish my role. I devour all I can about the technology, social networking and the fast pace of web needs and with that, my technological knowledge grows every day.

My point is, whatever our backgrounds, we should never feel inferior to anyone (or be made to feel inferior by someone else) about our technological roles no matter what level we happen to reside in for the moment. Technology changes, needs change, and we need to SUPPORT and EDUCATE ourselves and the people around us without making people feel like they dont belong or have nothing to give. There will always be someone who knows more and there will always be someone who knows less. We should support and learn from each other.

Comment by Liz Polay-Wettengel

I started a seminar series for women and girls that is geared to educating the un-techie, in hopes that maybe it will increase their own business, their job and career. It allows for older women to learn technologies as most of these women did not grow up with the wonders of the Internet. We also give scholarships to high school girls so that they can get involved in programming, design, IT, and other fields.

GeekGirlCamp is not intended for the complete Girl Geek as an attendee, but we need the Geek Girl professional to teach the seminars on all things tech.

We also look to the tech businesses everywhere for sponsorship, as I cannot do this alone. We have already been blessed with some great tech companies as sponsors, but we always need more.

If we do not bring these items to the attention all age workers, no one will know enough about them to perhaps have a change in career focused in IT, and perhaps students will not have the ability to learn more about the business side of IT.

Any thoughts, comments and suggestions are always appreciated, and any way we can all work together is what I strive for!

Comment by Leslie Fishlock

@tcv I think that any stereotype isn’t ideal. I go back to the old saying that “it takes all kinds” and that there are just as many level-headed men as there are women, and vice versa. I don’t think you are doing more harm than good, but you have to give the fellas a chance, too. :) It’s great that you are passionate about mentoring women and giving them the tools to succeed.

Comment by Jennifer Leggio

@Jennifer I KNOW (re: the auto-generated blog link). I found that obnoxious and ironic. :) Thank you for the comment and for reading. And good luck with your own efforts. It sounds like you’re very active. Perhaps I’ll bug you for some ideas.

Comment by Jennifer Leggio

@Stevi Good for you! I believe that there are Girl Geek Dinners in San Francisco but not here in South Bay. I could be wrong but I’ll check into it. If not, perhaps that’s something I can think about doing, too. Thanks!

Comment by Jennifer Leggio

@Leslie I’ll definitely be in touch to talk about how we might work together, share ideas, and so on. Sounds like you have a great group going.

Comment by Jennifer Leggio

@Liz BRAVO. If I hear “you’re just in marketing” one more time I am going to scream. I am not a technical genius, but I am also not wholly untechnical. I can talk circles around some people. But that shouldn’t matter at all. We’re all working as a team, fighting for success. That’s where the focus should be. Thank you for your thoughts!

Comment by Jennifer Leggio

@Jennifer I absolutely hire all kinds. I am sorry to have left you with that impression. But I think if I had two candidates, one position, and equal weight among hard skills, I would take a person with more an abundance of softer skills. My experience has been that tends to be women, but sometimes it’s not. :-) I guess what I am saying, I will look harder at the woman candidate to see if that’s there. I suppose this isn’t good. :-(

Comment by tcv

Great post. I felt many of the same thoughts you’ve expressed in your post and decided to create a local Girl Geek Dinner group. The events are ‘geeky’ in nature and allow for Techies and non-techies alike to participate.

This is my contribution to making the world a bit more friendly to girl geeks. The encouragement I’ve gotten from creating this group has been so valuable and in turn has helped the community grow.

I’m so glad I found your blog! Great work!

Comment by Tanya

I’ve always had the issue that I work at small companies- so when it comes to the girl work force- I am usually it. I thought it was just something that came with the territory :) Maybe a girl geek dinner is just what we need in NH to cultivate the female quota that seems to be lacking.

Comment by kelley muir

Part of the thing that inspired me to write about this issue in my webcomic was the continued prevalence of sexism in the industry. Hell, we’re geeks, which by definition, means we’re outsiders. We should be better than the herds. Yes, time for change.

Comment by planetheidi

NCWIT and Brad Feld are great resources. You’re lucky to have access to both. I have always appreciated the balance that women bring to technology and leadership and am glad to see you focusing on the issue.

Comment by Jon Strickler

@tcv I think you’re fine. Just the fact that you’re willing to even examine how you make these hiring decisions shows an openness that a lot of people may lack. Don’t let it worry you, but harness it to try to help others grow to be as good as they can be, and try to help them learn the same openness. :)

Comment by Jennifer Leggio

@Tanya Fantastic. I may follow your lead in that in creating a geek girl dinner here. :)

Comment by Jennifer Leggio

@Kelley YES, that’s the spirit! Do me a favor and let me know if you decide to do a local geek girl dinner. Would love to hear about it.

Comment by Jennifer Leggio

@Jon Thank you. I realize how lucky I am to have had a chance to speak with both of them. I certainly learned a lot, gained some better insight to the cause, and feel better poised to help.

Comment by Jennifer Leggio

@planetheidi I love your comic! I spent some time reading through your site earlier today. I think its an amazing, creative endeavor. I just shared it with my network.

Comment by Jennifer Leggio

Jeniffer, you are very right on. Btw, there is a fantastic book very inspiring in this regards. It’s called Necessary Dreams. One big challenge that women have is that, when they reach a level to contribute, they are usually at that point wives and mothers. For them to keep true to their ambitions, it is necessary that they have help in the home front. This book talks about that and many other revealing insights.

Comment by Carlisia Campos

Thanks for the praise!

Comment by planetheidi

Hi, thanks for sharing this. I had a couple of meetings with Lucy and her team and they are a great organization to help bring more exposure to. I came to them from the entreprenuer’s and volunteer point of view (vs. being within any institution or corporation) and unfortunatelly, at this time they do not have yet an structure for people with my desire to help (not being part of a corporation to make changes within). However, I strongly recommend any woman that is investing any time thinking or acting on women’s issues/needs to seriously pay some attention to the NCWIT.

Comment by societybackbone

If you do find out more about the SF Girl Geek dinners, would you please post about it? I recently did some searching, and couldn’t find more than a reference to a Google-sponsored dinner back in Jan.
Thanks, and nice to have found your blog! Subscriber++

Comment by Nisha Pillai

This is a subject on which I am typically silent, even after 20+ years in this profession. However, you’ve managed to press a few of my buttons, so I’m going to have to take some time to come up with a well-formed response. Be aware, my reaction to this is not a positive one. In my experience, women do themselves a grave disservice in the technical field by taking up any kind of gender banner.

As for what I plan to do — the same thing I’ve always done: work just as hard as ever.

Comment by Erin Ptacek

@Erin – I welcome your comments, positive or not. Just to be clear, the discussion is not male vs. female nor waving a banner. It’s not even a conversation about equality. It’s about empowering more women to take charge in what is unarguably a male-dominated industry, and not be put off by the demographics and the stereotypes caused by the people who do fly the banners, so to speak. Whether it is before or after you respond, I urge you to do some research on NCWIT and how it builds community for women in IT.

Comment by Jennifer Leggio

A very gracious response — with respect to your specialization, it’s a hazard, criticism. I did it, re-read it a few times and I think it says what I want to say. You can read it here:

Pardon the formatting — I’m still chopping up my borrowed CSS for WP.

WRT “community for women in IT” — I am supremely skeptical. It’s a subtle idea and I am absolutely struggling to articulate it. In my experience, labels are slippery and dangerous. For example, “male-dominated industry” is a horrible misnomer, significant of a paradigm so fraught with boundaries that I can’t keep my dang trap shut about the damage it does. I’d even go so far to say it’s why I cannot form close relationships with the women in my industry… though I’m not prepared to back that statement up just yet.

Comment by Erin Ptacek

You want to walk in the forefront of the fashion? Do you dare to flaunt oneself is fashionable element in the movement? You still because of high price and deficits? Come here, not to spend the high price to change the vogue man in sport !!!!!

Comment by lili

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: