Women in Technology: At Lunch with the Sisterhood

Opinion: A luncheon honoring women in technology opens one man's eyes.

A new area of interest for me is that of women in computing. Indeed, among the stock questions I now often ask "leaders" in the industry is: "What can be done to get more women interested in technology?"

With that in mind, I went to the Women in Technology luncheon at Microsofts TechEd conference in Orlando last month.

I arrived a little late and the lunch part of the event had already kicked in, so 500 women were already well into their salads or onto the entrée by the time I found a seat at a table toward the back of the room. I shyly sat down, trying my best to be incognito—to be my typically stealthy self. But there was to be none of that. I was but one of six men in the room other than some of the servers—I counted five men, but others said the number ranged between four and six. In any event, I was greatly outnumbered.

And although Im typically outnumbered in some way or other at most tech events, this felt a little different. I tried not to consider how different until, after the luncheon, Eileen Brown, manager of the IT Pro Evangelist Team for Microsoft UK and organizer and moderator of the event, asked me: "How did you feel being a bloke in this audience?"

At first I tried to act all nonchalant, claiming: "Im always in the minority!" But Eileen just smiled politely and I was compelled to offer more. I had to admit there were times when I felt downright out of place and like I didnt get the joke. And when I did get it, it was on me—well, on men—and the women nearby chuckled good naturedly at the guy who was getting to see the other side.

But obviously the event itself was no joke. As a black man Im used to being in the minority at tech events, sometimes being the only one in a room. But Ive never really noticed. At Women in Technology, I definitely noticed, not because I felt out of place, but because there was such a strong sense of camaraderie amongst the women in the room. It was palpable—almost like all the ladies were somehow holding hands connecting each other in a show of sisterhood. I hadnt felt that since the time I went to a founders day event for a girlfriends sorority and I was one of maybe 30 men in a room full of 500 or more. At one point all the women stood and sang the sorority song and their unity was as potent as the Women in Technology.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about how to smash the glass ceiling.

At the center of each table at the Microsoft event was a basket of colored scarves bearing a Women in Technology banner. Brown told each woman to take one and to wear it in honor of the women in technology. I was feverishly taking notes and getting quotes, but when I looked up at the basket on the table where I sat every last scarf was gone. And the table was but two-thirds full. The scarves had been "scarfed up" at the nearby tables as well. Oh well, what was a man going to do with one of those scarves anyway? I was just an observer.

Well, had I got one, I was going to give the scarf to my sister, who happens to work in IT. Having grown up with four independent go-getters for sisters—all but one older than me—I know for a fact that women can and do work harder, smarter and better than a whole lot of men at any task put to them. Every one of my sisters has shown me up on numerous occasions and taught me lessons I carry to this day.

Meanwhile, Brown discussed the results of a survey she had conducted about women in technology. The survey went out to more than 1,300 women and got back more than 700 responses, including responses from 17 men, she said.

Among the results were that women see a glass ceiling, which seemed evident in the responses. Fifty-two percent of the respondents said they had reached a managerial level in the IT industry, but only 5 percent said they had reached the level of "director," Brown said.

Moreover, Brown said, "Women between 40 and 55 are leaving the industry in droves."

Among the callouts Brown cited from the survey were that the "nerdy" image of technology puts girls off of technology careers, and the long hours also are a turn-off. Also, many women said they feel like they have to work harder than men and that often women dont credit each other or that "weak, feminine women" hurt the cause.

Brown, who spent several years as a merchant seawoman, said of her experience: "It was a really hard life. I was the only girl on the ship. I had to work twice as hard as the men…Does this sound familiar to any of you?"

Of course it did, as the applause and murmuring in the room proved. Another comment from the survey was "I need to demo something 1,000 times before Im taken seriously."

After Brown discussed the survey, she introduced a panel of women in IT. The panelists were:

Ani Babaian, a senior product manager with Microsoft; Lisa Coleman, marketing manager for Microsoft partner Intermedia.NET; Mary Jo Foley, a journalist/blogger on Microsoft; Mythreyee Ganapathy, senior program manager, Microsoft Education Strategies; and Amanda Murphy, senior technology specialist and director of operations for Infotech Canada and president-elect of INETA.

Murphy said she was determined to start a user group, particularly a developer user group. She joked that her father told her that her developer skills were almost as good as her cooking skills—"Ive done it, but its really not fit to eat," she said. But that didnt deter her from starting the user group. "The thing for me is it really is about the community, the connection."

Babaian, who is the author of an upcoming book: The IT Girls Guide to Becoming an Excel Diva, said she really enjoys math, and technology was a natural thing for her. "I fell into IT because at 14 I realized this babysitting thing sucks," she quipped.

However, citing some of the inequities women face, Babaian said she was in a program where "I was the only one who ended up with a PC and a monitor that I had to carry around every day. All the others [in the program] were men; they all got laptops."

As advice on how to interest more young girls in IT careers, Babaian said: "Ive found that girls are fascinated by where I travel, what I do, the kind of shopping I can do, and that I can buy my own Coach bag."

Ganapathy said she believes that "diversity of any kind helps us build better products." So adding more women to the ranks can only help strengthen teams and the technology they build.

But perhaps there should be more of a focus on the social impact of technology to attract women to the field. Ganapathy said she believes part of the issue lies in how technology is taught in schools.

"We are not bringing out the social aspect, or were not bringing out how technology can have an impact on changing society," she said.

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