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Dear CertMag: My love affair with computers and technology goes all the way back to middle school. I work in data storage and I’ve had a handful of employers since college. I don’t generally have problems with men (I married one), but I keep landing in jobs where my co-workers are either all male or mostly male. I know women tend to be rare at tech companies, and my colleagues are generally respectful and helpful. It never gets much worse than the occasional well-meaning quip like, “We had to add a second bathroom after they hired you.” I just wish I didn’t always stand out so much. I often tell myself I can’t be the only woman in IT who’s ever felt isolated. Are there associations or groups in the industry for people like me?
— Lauren, Medford, Oregon
Lauren, what you are experiencing is in the technology industry is not only unfortunate and a challenge to live with, but inappropriate and, depending on the extent of the comments and other conduct, illegal! I wish that I could say that your experience is unique — that it is limited to a few employees or even a few companies. Sadly, this is simply not the case as some firms, as well as some segments of those in the technical field, struggle with inclusion in a very male-dominated environment.
I have the great fortune to work for one of the best consultancies in the world for Microsoft technology. Even in a firm of our size, the presence of our female colleagues is under-represented. There are any number of sociological and educational reasons for this, as study after study has looked at the motivating factors, challenges and other criteria that affect how genders choose career fields and complete degree programs.
Avanade, like many companies, has invested strongly in a diversity program, not just in dollars, but in key company integration areas like executive sponsorship, representative roles and engagement programs. Avanade provides employees the opportunity to participate in outside societies that raise awareness and provide tools for the advancement of various social classes within the workplace.
The reason that these investments are made is not about liability or what happens to be politically correct at the moment. Women (and other protected social or racial groups) represent a large population comprising individuals with deep intelligence, varied experience, adept technical skills, and a set of perspectives which may offer different viewpoints to organizations and customers. Failing to recognize that incredible abundance of value — to the culture of the company, to individual customers, and to specific projects — leaves vast potential on the table. Potential that someone like yourself can bring to any team.
Maybe you will see something I missed. Maybe you will think of a way to solve a customer problem that I am having trouble approaching. Maybe you are more technically adept at an area of technology than I am, and can bring that strength to our shared customer. Throwing away that asset on my team because of a narrow point of view is a dangerous disservice to my team, customer and company.
To address your specific question, absolutely there are a number of groups which can help you gain valuable support from the shared experiences of others. I have only the space to mention one, but there are many out there, including organizations for other challenged groups as well! You may want to look into Women in Technology (www.witi.com), which is an international organization with local chapters to help empower you with experiences and connections to help you leap forward!
As a final note, be encouraged that you have the strength and skill to be successful! I can’t tell you that I can entirely empathize with the challenges that you endure as a woman in the technical industry, having not endured them, but I can tell you that I sympathize. Be excellent. Do not let the ignorance of others define how you view yourself. Recognize that others need to grow in order to embrace the strengths that are within you — the failure is theirs, not your own.
If acceptance continues to be a challenge, there are always firms — like Avanade — that will value you for who you are, and how you can contribute to the team. Consider your career goals and your experience: Maybe there is another organization that will recognize your value. Not because you are a woman. Or a man. Or white. Or black. Or anything else. Rather, because you contribute with merit, with blindness to social factors and personal bias, as we seek together to offer (and reward!) the best services we can to our employers or our customers.