Where are the Women Software Engineers?

Vicki W. Hamilton works with Women in Technology to help other women go from Classroom to Boardroom.Look into the cubicles where you find software developers and you’ll be struck by the lack of women working as software engineers. That doesn’t sit well with experienced IT executives such as Vicki Hamilton, the current president of the Women in Technology Foundation  in metro Atlanta, Georgia.

Hamilton Brings Decades of STEM Experience to WIT

Vicki Hamilton knows the struggles of being a woman in what now is a male-dominated field. She’s been working in the technology industry for more than 30 years. She started out as a programmer, worked as a business analyst, moved into operations, then large-scale deployment and next in the executive levels of technology companies. She’s worked in 24/7 global support centers, customer service, network, wide-scaled deployments and as a systems analyst.

She’s run the gamut of different roles and leadership responsibilities. Hamilton remembers developing project management offices when they were just getting started, a process that requires a true understanding of the relationship between business and tech – and how to bridge that gap.

In her own company, she partners with people making sure they have the right balance, right skill set and opportunities moving forward.

Women & Technology by the Numbers

Why Do So Few Women Work as Software Engineers?

The first computers were women. Female mathematicians created ballistic tables for artillery crews during World War II so they could quickly and accurately aim their guns. Without internal guidance systems or GPS, this was the only way to calculate accurate fire.

As the war ended and electronic machines were created, women stepped in to program these new computers to make the actual calculations for business and government. Cosmopolitan Magazine even ran an article in 1967 saying that programming was a “whole new kind of work for women.”

But the workplace began to be seen as hostile, with women pushed out of the field or finding themselves unable to return if they took leave for their family. The few women who took computer science classes found themselves isolated in an often hostile environment as well.

Once it became clear that programming software was the future of computing, it began to attract more men, wrote Andrew Parsons on Backstory. MIT and Stanford founded computer science programs. The image of the male programmer seen in the media today took root in those university labs, which were places not welcoming to women.

Now the men wanted their jobs moved out of the “women’s work” category. Male dominated professional associations were formed. Hiring women was discouraged, Rose Eveleth reported on Smithsonian.com. Math puzzle hiring tests were used that gave men who had taken math classes an advantage, as were personality tests that purported to find the ideal “programming type.”

But why are so few women found in the field today?

Hamilton points to several reasons as the cause. “Number one is exposure: Being exposed and having the opportunity to get that education background and experience in engineering.”

Women need to understand what’s involved in being a software engineer and what makes you good in this field. Next they need the opportunity to learn so that they can gain the skill sets such as math and engineering, and not be afraid of them.

“The third thing is that when you are in the field, and I can say this as being a woman in the tech field, it can be very lonely,” Hamilton said. “So what happens is, you start down that path and you find they’re not as many people that look like you.”

If someone has the view that the opportunity doesn’t exist, they might back out of the field.

“That’s why we go ‘Classroom to Board Room’,” she said. Without the cultural experience, education and getting to see others who look like them prospering within the STEM fields, women will be discouraged at every turn.

Women in Technology (WIT) has the goal and mission that “by 2020 we want to have 50 percent of the new hires that are done within STEM fields to be occupied by women – 50/50 by 2020,” Hamilton said.

The intent is to get more women into STEM professions, and they have a plan for that: “We go ‘From the classroom to the boardroom,’” she said.

WIT offers programs in classrooms to educate young women about the possibilities. The organization’s volunteers work with company boards and the C-suites to build a pipeline to bridge the gap. The WIT Foundation gives scholarships and grants to support these goals within the community.

Women May Struggle to Advance

  • 28% of women and 57% of men report working in a computing job in the first few years after earning computing degrees, according to an AAUW analysis of data from U.S. Dept of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • 50% of women who originally worked in STEM, primarily engineering and computing, exited the field after 12 years
  • In the first few years after earning computing degrees, 28 percent of women and 57 percent of men report working in a computing job

A woman who starts her career as a software engineer needs an opportunity to prosper in the field. She wants to work with organizations that are ready to let her have a seat at the table. At any company, she will ask herself if she will have an opportunity to be a supervisor, executive or any other kind of manager.

“So few women sit around that table – it’s still predominately a large amount of men sitting around the table,” Hamilton said.

The challenge is making room for women, too.

“We want to make sure we are cultivating the career of a woman so that she, too, may have a seat at the table. Not instead of, but in addition to,” she said.

A woman who has the qualifications, experience and abilities wants a chance to shine. She’ll need someone to believe in her to give her that opportunity. If they had all of that, the WIT wouldn’t be needed. We wouldn’t have underserved markets or the digital divide, Hamilton said.

“Unfortunately, not everyone is given that same opportunity. And that’s the challenge we are facing,” she said.

Advice to Women Software Engineers

Women interested in software engineering should research what it is and what a person does in this field. WIT offers programs that help to get that exposure to understand what the field is about, what the requirements are and what skill sets are needed. A prospective software engineer should then plan her education to meet those requirements. Just taking classes won’t be enough to make it a career, according to Hamilton.

Women pursuing this field should take on opportunities to volunteer for organizations that need software engineers, whether that means a charitable organization or foundation, or an internship at a software development company. This exposure helps women get real-life exposure to put on their resumes.

Throughout college, women need to network as much as they can. Hamilton said today’s students have opportunities to network that weren’t available when she was a student – LinkedIn, Facebook and groups of all kinds are much more recent tools.

But to advance in software development, women need mentors from among the people who work using software within organizations. And this needs to start while they are in college. Don’t wait to graduate to research opportunities, she said.

Dawn Russell, Izenda’s Vice President of Development and Customer Success, agrees with Hamilton’s assessment. “Look for mentors, even people out of your current focus areas, to develop a broader perspective and to serve as a personal board of advisors,” she said.

She also advises women interested in the field to keep their intellectual curiosity.

Women should use today’s online tools to research companies and the career path that may be possible at each company. Are the entry level positions going to give you the right kind of exposure for your career path? That’s one of the questions for which you need an answer before starting in a new job.

Learning Path Never Ends

Did you think you were done with education once you earned that college degree? Hopefully not, as anyone in software development will tell you even to keep pace with the field requires you to learn many new skills. Hamilton said once you start working, “Get all the tools in your toolbox you can on software development.”

Those new tools might require moving into another area within a company, or find a software engineering job at another company to gain new experiences.

“Be open to opportunities even if they don’t look like they are immediately what you assumed would be the next logical step,” Russell said. By taking on roles that are challenging or unconventional you create an opportunity to succeed in circumstances that allow your talents and leadership abilities to be recognized.

“Taking on new challenges is what ultimately lead to my assuming responsibilities for all development at Izenda,” she said.

When you’ve gained enough experience to advance within the field but despite that progress you can’t get promoted, your male and female mentors will become invaluable. In addition, women should find sponsors within the company. Mentors can help you with different aspects of your life while sponsors speak for you when you aren’t at the table to help you navigate through the organization.

“Am I going to tell you there’s not a glass ceiling? I am not,” Hamilton said. The irony is that we’re still having the same discussion about not admitting women. Some are very respectful of women in software engineering, but they are in the minority.

But there are ways around these limits that differ from company to company.

“We do have challenges of getting over that feeling, getting through the glass ceiling. Some of those challenges can be minimized through relationships or sponsorships,” she said.

What to Do Once You Succeed

While there’s still a long way to go, the good news is that a few women have made it in software engineering and the rest of the STEM fields. They need to reach back and give back to help other women, Hamilton said. And it’s the same for those companies that are helping out – they should use their influence on other companies that hiring and promoting women are good ideas.

What is your company doing? Hamilton wants you to look internally to help facilitate a partner to help make sure there are women in the pipeline who can move forward.

Organizations Supporting Women in Technology

Many more exist, so check your local meetups for the closest organization.

What Can Your Company Do to Boost These Numbers?

Percentage of full-time IT professionals who are women
Role Percentage
Web developers 39%
Computer systems analysts 36%
Database administrators 32%
Computer support specialists 28%
Computer programmers 24%
Computer occupations, all others 23%
Software developers, applications and systems 20%
Computer and information research scientists 20%
Information security analysts 19%
Network and computer systems administrators 18%
Computer network architects 7%

Source: L.M.Frehill analysis of data from U.S. Dept of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2014c).

An acknowledgment that your company seeks women as software engineers and in other positions is critical, Hamilton said, as is how you support them once they are hired.

“I think retention is the part that gets lost,” she said.

A company can be awesome at recruiting women and have a great balance of men and women.

“But if you don’t have a program that retains them, gives them an opportunity and shows growth, nobody is going to want to work for you,” she said. That’s a waste of talent and opportunity. These women want to grow. They don’t want to believe they only were hired because they are women. They want to know you respect their opinions and that they will get the opportunity to be part of the solution.

This isn’t just a tech issue because some of these problems span to any career. Women still can be seen as less reliable as they have children and even elderly parents who need caregiving from them.

“I think companies have to think beyond that because men are doing it too. There are single dads, single moms,” Hamilton said.

Other Views

Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing

Gender and Age are Still Defining Factors of Tech Specialists

Women Still Underrepresented in STEM Fields

The 5 Biases Pushing Women Out of Tech

These STEM Initiatives are Inspiring Women and Girls Around the Globe

Is technology finally embracing women?

For More Information

To learn more about how Women in Technology (WIT) has been striving to progress the role of women in the tech industry and to better STEM education opportunities for girls for the past 20 years, visit mywit.org. For more information about the self-service business intelligence solution Russell’s team has been developing, visit Izenda.com.

 

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