Across the United States, colleges and schools are renewing efforts to encourage women of all ages to enter science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. As companies look to fill their technology-based job openings, many have embarked on diversity initiatives to expand their employee base and talent pipelines. Companies need to attract female college graduates and hold onto them once recruited, which can be a formidable challenge when women leave technology careers at a nearly 45% higher rate than men1. Not only is the demand for software developers on the rise, but so too is demand for the technical skills necessary to run mainframes and other technologies. Without a skilled workforce, the industry faces a workforce crisis unless it modifies its recruitment and retention strategies.
Rosalind Radcliffe, an IBM Distinguished Engineer, says, “It is unfortunate that the number of women in IT has not grown, but has instead decreased over the last 30 years.” Engaging women in the workforce is important not only from an economic perspective, but also from a social and human perspective, says Jeanne Glass, Founder and CEO of VirtualZ Computing. Women are an untapped economic resource, particularly in IT where there is a significant shortage of skilled workers at large.
Kellie Mathis, vice president of product development at Direct Systems Support, says workforce dynamics are changing, with Americans working into their 60s and 70s. With that in mind, there are fewer chances to move up at some of the larger companies. This can limit advancement opportunities for women and all workers. “To better compete, we need to keep our skills fresh, stay current on changes, and be ready to grab opportunities when they arise,” she adds.
Carla Flores, security specialist at Broadcom and member of SHARE’s Women in IT committee, was often the youngest — and the only — female in meetings when she started in IT. But she focused on building her credibility and creating a name for herself. Flores explains that ultimately her soft skills enabled her to get her points across. “I think that listening to people first, before professing all your knowledge, is key to being successful in many aspects of life, not just your career,” she advises. For women with IT careers today, Flores says, “Be yourself [and] don’t be shy. Find a mentor in your organization that believes in you and will help you not only navigate your organization, but also the limitless field of opportunity in IT.”
Lisa Wood, chief marketing officer for VirtualZ Computing, says her experiences were different than many of her colleagues, as she didn’t receive much advice early on in her career. However, she does say that women who give their curiosity a lot of freedom to explore IT will succeed. “By that I mean dig in, roll your sleeves up to learn everything you can from the people around you,” says Wood. “Schedule time or go out to lunch with people you can build relationships with so you can boost your knowledge base.” She adds that hand-in-hand with that advice, “You need to share your own expertise and be part of the team.”
Radcliffe states, “One important message is that no one knows what you want, they can’t read your mind. You must make it clear to management and your team what you want and where you want to go in your career.” She adds, “You won’t get promotions just by doing the work. You have to explain what you are doing and the value you provide to the company. You also need to know when to say when the team did the work and when to explain what you did.”
Glass adds, “For women entering an IT career today, I would advise they be genuine in their interactions with colleagues, take pride in their own work, and proactively sponsor or mentor other women.” Flores goes a step further, advising everyone in IT to give back to their communities as a way to foster the IT ecosystem. “One of my most rewarding passions has been the volunteer work I do with local elementary school students,” she says. “Along with a group of peers, we run the Hour of Code for kids in grades K-5. It’s incredible to see their little faces light up when they grasp the concepts of logical thinking and coding.”
For women in IT, Flores says you need to “find the balance that works for you to be an equal at the table.” She adds, “Maybe that means watching body language; maybe that means being thoughtful, but impactful when you have something to contribute to the conversation. But above all, be yourself [and] claim your spot at the table every time.”
Recruiting and retaining women in the IT profession can be difficult given pay imbalances, gaps in work-life flexibility, and erroneous perceptions that women are not as skilled as men in the field, but experts say companies cannot afford to leave women in IT out or underutilized. In order to move in the right direction, companies need to not only foster mentoring relationships with women, but also younger workers; ensure pay is comparable for all; and address any work-life imbalances that arise. Career development is a two-way street, which is why women should also take the initiative to speak with their colleagues and managers about their own goals and objectives. Individual women should not be afraid to speak up, connect with the mentors around them, including those experts at SHARE, and take their career path into their own hands.