Women’s History Month is certainly the occasion for looking back in time to women who have played important roles in social progress. For me (and many others I’m sure) it’s also a time to take stock of the present and think about the future.
The place of women in technology is naturally of interest to me—and things have changed over the course of my own career, but still not enough.
I see more women than I used to in technology-based careers. I am no longer the only one in a room. There are more opportunities than there once were, but women still account for well under half of the U.S. technology workforce.
There are a couple of key things that can continue to move the needle in the right direction: education and mentoring.
I’m the STEM lead for CGI’s Knoxville Delivery Center. STEM education—science, technology, engineering and math—is historically dominated by boys, partly due to outdated notions of gender roles. We had about 50 students take part in our first two programs last year, and I expect three times that many next time.
Through competitions like the Congressional App Challenge, students build skills and learn, while gaining recognition for their coding skills. The recognition comes even if they’re not on the winning teams because they’re creating useful apps along the way. I think it helps to dispel the perception that technology is challenging for most people—girls especially—to succeed at. A good grounding in STEM education opens up a big barrier to entry at a young age.
Mentoring encourages learning along the way
In a field where there are
few women, mentoring is especially important. Mentors are not teachers or trainers for skills, at least not necessarily; they are guides for navigating career paths and solving problems.
I think young women in technology fields should have courage, and that’s something a mentor can help develop. Know that even when you’re not in your comfort zone, keep going and figure out what works for you—which is something that’s easier to learn if someone who has already weathered the storms is showing you the way.
My 19-year-old daughter Cassandra is studying computer science in college, with a focus area in cybersecurity. She’s an Air Force ROTC cadet and expects those skills to be helpful in her future military career.
I am not sure I can claim her as a product of my successful mentoring, though. When I first suggested to her to go into security, she wasn’t interested. However, a little later, she started competing in hacking contests and realized she liked security disciplines.
She and I are co-presenting at WiCyS 2022 on March 18, in Cleveland. WiCyS is an association of women in cybersecurity, and we’re going to dialogue about a topic that many parents and teenagers can relate to—location services and privacy.
My husband and I required our children to use tracking apps on their phones, so that we could know where they were at any time. When Cassandra went to college, she turned the app off. We’re going to talk about how it feels to be a teenager and unable to escape your parents’ supervision, and the bigger picture behind it. Her feeling, and it’s a good point, is that these apps can provide a false sense of security. There are ways to thwart them. Further, even if I know where they are, if something happens, what am I going to do about it?
It should be a fun conversation for the audience, but we are both hoping it will encourage people to think about privacy in today's tech world.
It also will demonstrate how fast technology evolves. The ability to keep tabs on someone’s movements from afar is something that would have been fiction not all that long ago. Now it’s a finely tuned capability for anyone with a mobile phone—and with that capability comes inevitable risks and vulnerabilities.
That is the thing with cyber that people need to understand. There’s a continuous learning environment. There is always a new skill to pick up. If you’re a lifetime learner, this could be a good career path for you.