Women technologists: Don't ask for permission
- By Jenna O'Steen
- Nov 03, 2014
Throughout my career, I've focused on technology, law enforcement, and the intersection of both. So it may not surprise you that I've rarely been surrounded by many females in my professional life.
Typically, the events and conferences I attend are filled with a sea of males in dark suits and law enforcement uniforms. But, I was in for a very pleasant culture shock when I arrived in Phoenix in October 2014 for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. #GHC2014
The 2014 GHC was a landmark success in many facets, selling out with 8,000 attendees and all but a few hundred of them were female – it was the world’s largest gathering of women technologists (a term with which everyone should get more familiar).
The title of “Celebration” was fitting because there was an excitement and fervor in Phoenix as so many attendees took a break from their male-dominated circles to collaborate with female counterparts from around the world.
GHC was different in appearance and experience from any other professional event, which made several overriding trends that much harder to ignore:
Observation #1: The technical world will be transformed from the young-up rather than traditional senior leadership-down.
The pace of technical change will continue to escalate and transform. As this occurs, it is adaptability rather than seniority that can have the biggest impact, and small teams or even individuals can now create very disruptive technology. In this environment, digital natives will thrive because they’re prepared to more readily reinvent themselves. And as they’re more willing to question the status quo, women in particular are well positioned to emerge as leaders in this environment.
Fortunately, GHC was dominated by youthful females – I was told 2,800 of them were scholarship participants still completing their university educations and preparing to transform the workforce.
Of the remaining attendees, my observation was a vast majority of them had less than fifteen years of professional experience. Many such youthful females represented top commercial organizations – Google sent more than 400 female employees – and led thought-provoking technical panels. These passionate females plan to take the world by storm and they will be emphasizing the code they write much more than their total years of experience.
Observation #2: There is a convergence of technical challenges and opportunities across the commercial and government spaces.
One of the things that made GHC such an appealing conference for me was the great agenda, with sessions focused-on cutting edge technology in the areas where I spend most of my time – Agile development, cloud, mobility, and analytics (Agilex’ core competencies). As I work to align these technical areas against the needs of federal government clients, GHC had fantastic panels in which presenters (Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Square, and so many other leading commercial entities) offered practical examples of the challenges in their industries and how they are tackled.
For instance, a data science panel assessed how businesses are “dying of thirst in an ocean of data [with] more than 90 percent of the world’s data created in the last two years.” Businesses are innovating new methods to merge the traditional and big data approaches, which can be tracked and leveraged to efficiently offer cost-effective solutions to federal agencies facing the same challenges.
On the other hand, the keynote by DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar highlighted how government investments are pushing the bounds of corporate imaginations.
Observation #3: There are no easy answers for ‘how to get ahead’ and ‘have it all’ as a woman technologist.
An important facet and differentiator for GHC is the focus on female advancement and career development. Numerous sessions explored how to combat the statistic that “lack of advancement is the primary reason women leave technical fields.”
Praise was given to the fact many leading corporations have introduced transparency on the metrics of how many executive positions are held by women and minorities. While the current percentages are often woefully small, it establishes a baseline against which we can improve.
When individual participants asked how they could get ahead in their own careers and take away lessons learned from female IT executives, GHC often emphasized two key words – mentorship and sponsorship.
As defined by PMI.org, “the difference between a sponsor and a mentor is primarily a matter of purpose. While a mentor offers advice and support, a sponsor actively advocates for your career — and helps secure promotions and raises.”
While both of these must be mutual, two-way relationships, companies increasingly have taken action to foster mentorship and establish associated programs. On the other hand, there is no clear roadmap for how to gain sponsorship where a supervisor or colleague is willing to put their reputation on the line for your career. This means there are no straightforward answers or checklists of how female IT professionals should navigate their career progression.
In the absence of simplicity, we should look towards community – in order to promote one another. GHC clearly plays a significant role to foster such kinship.
Given the challenges women technologists will face, we must embrace the wise words of Grace Hopper, a pioneer in computer programming. While trailblazing forward, she so eloquently stated, “it is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”
I suggest we don’t stop to ask permission while we lean forward on our own career objectives, embrace technical roles, ignore traditional stereotypes, and promote one another.
Jenna O’Steen is senior manager and services solution strategist lead for Accenture Federal.