women in STEM
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By Jennifer Nelson, senior director of software engineering, Rocket Software

Jennifer Nelson, senior director of software engineering at Rocket Software, calls on more women to step up, share their stories and lead – or join – grassroots movements to attract more girls and women into the sector.

I realise that not all women would relish in the environment that led to my career in technology. To help fund my university education, I joined the United States Air Force, and was the only woman in a male-dominated world from very early on. When it was time to leave the military, I needed a job with the flexibility to allow me to finish my university degree. I found a DB2 database administrator job and a friend of a friend’s mum offered to teach me, despite my complete lack of experience.

I loved it! Learning what commands to enter to advance from one screen to the next made me feel like I was solving mysteries on a daily basis. I felt privileged to be in a lucrative field with carte blanche access to business-critical data. I hardly noticed that I was often the only woman in the room because I knew I was blessed to be working in supportive organisations. And while they may not have been completely gender blind, I didn’t feel discriminated against. I learned very quickly that if I worked hard and proved myself, I would go far. Of course, not everyone has that experience, so I feel very lucky to have avoided the so-called ‘bro culture’ that permeates a lot of companies.

A love of problem solving

My first foray into technology was through this world of unlocking mainframes and problem solving. Even as my career has progressed over the years, it is this love of creatively finding answers that still excites me and keeps me working in the industry. And it is this experience that I talk to girls and women about the most – encouraging them to give the technology industry a try. It is a message that we all need to ‘get out there’ more.

As an extension of my role at Rocket, I do a lot of grassroots outreach to encourage girls and women to pursue careers in the technology sector, and I often find myself coming across several misconceptions. The biggest misunderstanding is that working in technology means sitting at a desk in a dark corner and writing code all day. Don’t get me wrong: I applaud the initiatives that schools and technology companies are pushing to get girls, and young people in general, coding. But an unintended consequence of this good work has led to the industry communicating a very narrow view of what a career in technology means. This often results in the exact opposite of what they are trying to achieve!

Instead of attracting more girls to work in tech, focusing on just software engineering as a career path can turn them off of technology, especially if they struggle with coding or their skillset is not a perfect fit from the start. And many girls and women also worry that working in technology will lead to a solitary job far away from the careers that many of their friends are pursuing.

Technology companies need to expand the discussions around career options in technology. Non-IT companies, such as Tesco and Barclay’s, have massive IT shops with many technology-related careers on offer. Therefore, the industry needs to work with educators to do more to demonstrate the diversity of tech jobs across different industries. We need to convey that tech jobs abound in so many different companies, and that working in technology is not just about programming and software engineering. We need to communicate that tech opportunities are much broader, like software application testing, technical documentation writing, programme and project management, and IT infrastructure – all of which require a wide range of skills.

Girls I speak to tend to start paying much more attention when I talk about how technology companies are crying out to work with women with a wide variety of skills. An inclination toward mathematics definitely helps, but creative thinkers and fellow lovers of problem solving can find a role in technology suitable for them.  And these are not just one-off jobs, but substantial career opportunities with scope to advance, grow and lead. For example, detail-orientated women with a keen eye for meeting deadlines make great project managers. Or women who love to write task-related or instructive material can develop amazing careers as technical writers. Both of these positions exist in abundance in the tech industry.

Leading by example

Speaking of leading, communicating the diversity of technology careers on offer will fall on deaf ears if it comes from the wrong people. Many tech companies are taking it upon themselves to set up events and clubs aimed at attracting girls and women to the industry. In my view, for these to succeed they not only need to show off all the industry has to offer, but they also need to be initiated and led by women.

Even with the best intentions in the world, an event focused on women in technology led by men will appear disingenuous. Men, of course, need to be part of the conversation and involved, but women should be leading this.

Since I joined Rocket, the company has made a concerted effort to attract more women by providing good career progression, mentors, and leadership opportunities. While I know that not all companies take this approach, I know many that do. So why is it that I still find myself as the only woman on a panel of speakers at many industry events? Or for that matter, one of the few in attendance at a conference at all.

There are definitely politics at work here that companies need to look at around travel budgets, leadership roles and diversity in general. Those issues aside, a key challenge that we can address more immediately is giving all of those women already in tech more of a voice. A platform. I know of a lot of ‘bad ass’ women in tech who never talk about the work they do, who never get out there and showcase their accomplishments. Do we think our contributions are not worth noting? Are we quieter in our professional lives than we are in social settings?

Spreading the word

It’s not always natural for women to ‘blow their own trumpet’, but if you are a female IT professional, now is the time to make yourself heard! Now is the time to draw attention to your success, to your careers, to your future goals and aspirations. Because there’s never been a better time for getting involved in the IT industry as a woman.

There are numerous ways to make your voice heard as a woman in the industry. For example, creating a social media campaign and attracting followers to support women in tech, applying to speak at a conference, getting involved in local organisations or even starting your own! The latter sounds like a daunting task, but never to be one to ask people to do what I’m not prepared to do myself – I’ve done this! When Rocket’s CEO said he wanted to attract more girls into technology and women to work for us, myself and a few other women started a women-in-tech group at Rocket Software.

Girls need to hear from women about working in technology – they need to see first-hand the diversity of career options to choose from, not just take a company’s words for it. They need to hear our stories about our journeys and how to lead and inspire teams – and also how they can make their careers work for them. If you’re not one for standing up in front of thousands, don’t worry: this movement needs to be one of local, grassroots efforts. Start a local organisation, speak at your daughter’s or niece’s Brownie, Guide or Scout groups to share your stories about the challenges you face working in technology, about what excites you, about what keeps you going to work each day.

The technology industry as a whole is desperate to attract more women and to diversify the workforce. This benefits not just employees, but companies as well because a diverse workforce brings diverse thoughts and ideas that result in stronger businesses. And the more top talent a company attracts, the stronger it’s production, innovation, and revenue. Let’s face it, tech jobs as a whole serve a large set of industries that require a broad spectrum of talent. Young girls and women may not understand how their skills fit into the tech world beyond writing code.

So if you’re a woman in an IT role, regardless of the industry you serve, spread the word.