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A woman’s place is at the keyboard: Exploring the role of women in tech

By Elizabeth Exline
October 11, 2021 • 8 minute read

Much has been written about careers in information technology. It’s a thriving field, one that enjoys projected growth even as the post-pandemic job market struggles to regain lost ground. But, like any industry, it also has its challenges. One of these is a well-documented struggle to diversify its talent base to include more women and people of color.

That’s not to say it’s impossible for women and people of color to succeed. But the roadblocks to opportunity can sometimes be discouraging or even defeating. And that makes the question not one of possibility but of desirability. Is a career in tech worth it for women when it’s such an uphill battle?

Born to code

Kesha Williams remembers well her initial brush with technology. She was a freshman in high school when her father brought home the family’s first computer.

In the beginning, it was just another toy, something Williams could tinker with and learn from. But she soon realized there was potential for much more. She began to build out programs — her first was a calculator — and she was hooked.

“To me, it was just so cool to be able to build something that I could use,” Williams explains. “That’s what really attracted me to computer science and technology. And really, that’s what’s kept me in it. It’s just always trying to solve a problem, and you’re able to do that through being creative.”

Williams would go on to pursue a degree in computer science before launching her career as a software engineer. Mid-career, she completed her Master of Information Systems at University of Phoenix (UOPX) and today works as a principal Amazon Web Services (AWS) training architect for A Cloud Guru. (She is also an AWS Machine Learning Hero, APN Ambassador and Alexa Champion — all various distinctions from AWS.) But her path, while ultimately successful, could’ve been smoother.

Tech challenges

Williams has worked for a number of household names over the years, but the illustriousness of her resumé belies the obstacles she’s had to overcome along the way. First, there was the discovery that she was the exception rather than the rule when it came to demographics.

“When I was a summer intern at the National Security Agency, there was only one other woman on the team … [and] that’s when I realized what corporate America really looked like,” Williams recalls.

Then there was the issue of career growth. Williams would routinely watch male counterparts rise through the ranks and receive manager roles based on their potential rather than their performance. Williams, meanwhile, would have to prove “five or six times” that she could do something before she would get that same opportunity.

“Being a black woman in tech,” Williams says, “I can’t let what other people think about me change how I feel or think about myself because I’ve been put in several situations where I was just like, ‘Okay. Why am I even here? You’re not fully utilizing my skills. I’m not given the same opportunities. Did you just hire me to check a box?’

“So, being in a situation like that, it starts to play with you mentally. You start to question your abilities, and you start to think something is wrong with you. For many years in my career, I even considered leaving IT… but then I just had to find that validation from within. Once that started happening, I started getting my confidence back.”

Williams, who began teaching and mentoring after she earned her master’s degree, gradually learned to look for professional validation through the number of people she helped rather than the number of promotions she received. This, she says, helped recalibrate her confidence and her commitment to a career she loved, even if the field itself was problematic.

Women in tech, by the numbers

They say that numbers don’t lie, and in the case of women working in IT, they bear out Williams’ experience.

According to the 2021 Women in Tech Report by TrustRadius.com, “Women in tech are nearly twice as likely as men to have lost their jobs or been furloughed due to the pandemic.”

TrustRadius.com points to higher levels of burnout and family commitments as contributing to this trend, pointing out the issue of female employment transcends the tech industry to be a “holistic way women are impacted by responsibilities at work and at home.”

When it comes to the field of tech, finding a balance between work and family can feel especially tough. It is an industry dominated by men who don’t always share the same family obligations as their female coworkers.

Williams, for example, didn’t lose her job during the pandemic, but she has on more than one occasion been the only one in a room to leave a meeting early in order to pick up her kids.

“All of my kids went to the after-school program, and you have to be there at a certain time [or] they would charge you fees by the minute. So, I would always put them first, [even] if there was a meeting I had to leave or I had to miss.”

It doesn’t sound like such a big deal, having to miss a meeting now and then to pick up your kids. But it’s an example that speaks to a much deeper series of commitments. It’s juggling after-school pick-ups and activities every day. It’s finding last-minute childcare — or taking a sick day — when your child falls ill. It’s figuring out how to excel at work, nurture your family and just get dinner on the table every night. When you’re the only one (or one of a few) who has to juggle this rotating circus of commitments, it can lead to burnout or career changes pretty quickly.

Not convinced? Then consider these numbers. According to a recent study by Accenture and Girls Who Code, “Half of the young women who go into tech drop out by the age of 35, and [women leave] tech roles at a 45% higher rate than men.”

This contributes at least in part to the findings recently reported in Forbes.com: “The gender gap for women in technology as a whole is actually worse today than it was in 1984.” (Forbes cites the same Accenture study for that data. In 1984, 35% of tech workers were women. Today, that percentage is 32%.)

Even if this pressure doesn’t equate to leaving a job or even IT altogether, it does set women up to settle for less. Williams, for example, points out that she’s stayed in roles where she wasn’t appreciated or being promoted (despite receiving excellent reviews and requesting opportunities for advancement) because she needed to provide for her family as a single parent. Choosing the stability of a well-paying if limiting career over the risk of changing jobs can feel uniquely pertinent to women, especially women of color.

Why women matter

It could be easy to assume in the face of the numbers that maybe women just aren’t as interested in tech as men. Or that it doesn’t matter if it’s men or women filling the role, so long as someone is helping fill the growing demand for tech workers. (The demand for cybersecurity experts, for example, is up 50% since 2015.)

But a diverse team adds more than you might think. As noted in the Accenture survey, “diversity has been linked with driving innovation, reducing bias and raising tech company share prices.”

That means whether a company’s goal is to improve its competitive advantage, add value for its shareholders or simply do the right thing, women and people of color matter.

Williams puts it another way: “When we think about having diverse teams, it’s important for teams to look like the people that they’re building the software for. … If you don’t have a diverse team building those solutions and testing those solutions, then you’re more prone to release errors or bugs in production, which then requires more maintenance time, more money for maintenance and things of that nature. So, at the end of the day, diverse teams produce better systems.”

Advantages for women working in IT

While the challenges facing women in tech are numerous, the field is not without its attractions. Shirleen Hill-Omega, for instance, sees IT as being well-suited to women.

Hill-Omega’s career trajectory is markedly different from that of Williams. As an immigrant from the Philippines, Hill-Omega started out in nursing school but felt overwhelmed by it. “In the technology world, you crash a computer, and you can restore the data,” she explains. “With human beings, if you give the wrong medication, it will affect that person’s life!”

When she was just one year away from graduating from nursing school, Hill-Omega switched gears, eventually pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Information Technology at UOPX. Today, she works as an IT specialist for the Arizona Department of Agriculture, where she has been for the last 19 years.

To her mind, the remote roles offered in IT support and cybersecurity dovetail nicely with the flexibility needed to raise a family, travel and enjoy life outside of work.

Despite encountering some very real challenges as a woman in tech, Williams also recognizes the advantages her sex has afforded.

“At first, I kept saying, ‘There’s no advantage [to being a woman in tech]. I haven’t seen an advantage,’” Williams says. “But then, when I really thought about it, [I realized] it’s given me this great work ethic, and it just comes naturally for me to always go above and beyond, because I’ve had to do that so often.”

Tech in evolution

One of the most appealing characteristics of technology careers may well be the capriciousness of the technology itself. Skills that are in demand today could be obsolete tomorrow, which means IT often attracts lifelong learners.

“I would definitely say IT is not a boring field,” Williams says. “The technology is always changing, so if you want to remain marketable, you have to keep your skills current. So, I’m always in this continuous learning mode, which for me is exciting.”

Hill-Omega has also seen the field evolve over her nearly two-decade tenure. At the outset of her career, Hill-Omega was joined by four other women, all of whom had been reorganized into the IT department after previously working in administration. Today, there are just two women on her team.

What began as a repository for restaffed administrative personnel has grown into a competitive field where education is key to success. Depending on the kind of career students envision, a computer science degree, IT degree or even cybersecurity degree can all serve as pathways to jobs in IT.

Advanced degrees also offer value. Williams pursued her master’s degree because she wanted to teach and mentor others, but there were unexpected benefits for her full-time career, too. She learned skills like project management and leadership that she uses today and that she credits with helping her eventually move into a leadership role.

“Before going into the [master’s] program, I thought I just needed to be a great coder in order to move up the ladder,” she says. “But if I had only focused on that, I would’ve reached a hard limit where I couldn’t continue to move up. You have to be able to collaborate. You have to be able to work with businesspeople and break things down so that a business person understands the technology.”

The future of women in tech

As evidenced by the experiences and outlooks of Williams and Hill-Omega, IT offers a breadth of opportunity and challenges for women. They are, in essence, the trailblazers for the next generation of women who will see their success as not only possible but probable.

That, anyway, is the hope of Girls Who Code (GWC), an international nonprofit working to close the gender gap in tech. As noted in the Accenture study, Girls Who Code has developed university-level networks of alumni and other young women in computer science, which they call College Loops. These are led by GWC alumni and open to any women studying computing or interested in technology with the goal of using mentorship to keep women on the tech career track.

Today, GWC has 200 College Loops at four-year universities and community colleges across the country. Its college-aged alumni, the report notes, “are majoring in computer science at a rate of 15 times the national average, and the group is on track to close the gender gap in entry-level tech jobs by 2027.”

GWC’s success may just be the first step in remediating some of the challenges women face in IT in terms of studying computer science and related subjects. As for sticking with it and demanding equal opportunity and advancement? Well, if Williams and Hill-Omega’s stories are anything to go by, the passion IT can inspire in women may just be enough to keep these trailblazers in it until a more inclusive environment is achieved across the board.

In other words: Yes, a career in IT is indeed worth it for women.

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