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Experts Weigh in on How to Set Up Women for Success in Tech

Three women leaders in technology discuss the challenges they’ve faced and how companies can promote and empower other women.

Dr. Danyelle Ireland

Associate Director, UMBC Center for Women in Technology; Research Assistant Professor, UMBC Engineering and Computing Education Program

What challenges have you faced as a woman in technology and how were you able to overcome them?

I’m a social scientist and educational researcher who supports students through UMBC’s Center for Women in Technology (CWIT). My students sometimes doubt their skills and potential due to notions about who can succeed in computing and engineering. I study ways to empower them and help them learn to navigate interpersonal and structural challenges that often come with being underrepresented in technology.

What can technology companies do to empower their women employees?

It’s imperative that tech companies empower employees and look critically at programming, policies, and professional development, to make sure all stakeholder voices are included. Also, don’t underestimate the power of nurturing relationships at the professional level. Cultivating space for regular and authentic dialogue can help companies recognize and address gaps.

Can you speak to the importance of gender diversity in technology roles?

Certain tech roles have greater gender diversity than others, but many challenges in the field could be mitigated by including a wider range of voices at the design table. Companies have encountered problems of bias, accessibility, and safety with new products that they could have spotted and addressed much earlier by having a more diverse team from the start.

Is there someone you look up to within the technology field?

Our students look up to UMBC’s female faculty, as well as supportive male faculty, in engineering and computing, who give them opportunities to do research, present at conferences, and serve as peer leaders. Also, I teach a course where students examine the contributions of historical and contemporary women in tech, which helps them become more aware of the strong legacy of women in these fields.

How do you measure success in your current role as a female leader?

To see students develop over time is tremendously exciting, as they begin taking on leadership roles and advocating for themselves and others. It gives me confidence that CWIT is closer to achieving our vision: Students are prepared and empowered to be change agents in creating technology workplaces that are diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

Marie desJardins, Ph.D.

Dean of the College of Organizational, Computational, and Information Sciences, Simmons University

What challenges have you faced as a woman in technology and how were you able to overcome them?

It gets exhausting to always be in the minority, so connecting with the other women in the field has been really important to me. Also, many attributes that are seen as positives in male leaders, such as assertiveness, confidence, or decisiveness, are often seen as negatives in female leaders. My mindset has always been that if I am doing what I love to do with compassion and commitment, then I belong where I am and will be successful.

What can technology companies do to empower their women employees?

Men who want to be effective, active allies for women in tech need to recognize situations where the existing culture is not inclusive or diverse, and take steps to change things – not just waiting for the few women to change them. Proactively suggest women for advanced technical training, leadership opportunities, and visible positions in your organization.

Can you speak to the importance of gender diversity in technology roles?

Diversity of all types is the key to success for any organization – not just gender diversity, but full inclusion of people of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities; from different geographic areas; with degrees from different institutions; with different work and non-work interests. Research has shown that more diverse teams work better together, produce more robust engineering solutions, and lead to more sustainable organizations. And equity is a moral imperative.

Is there someone you look up to within the technology field?

Three women come to mind: Diane Greene, founding CEO of VMware and former CEO of Google Cloud, was a classmate of mine at UC Berkeley and is one of the most talented, visionary, and down-to-earth leaders I know. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, is a terrific role model as a leader in higher education, and has also significantly increased the number of women majoring in computer science at HMC during her time there. And Jan Cuny, former program manager for NSF’s Broadening Participation in Computing, has quietly and confidently done more to change the landscape of K-12 computer science education than anybody thought was possible 10 years ago.

How do you measure success in your current role as a female leader?

Being a university dean means having many tasks to juggle and many hard decisions to make. It’s impossible to please everybody, so I just try to keep my personal values and the institution’s values at the core of my decisions and interactions. And if I don’t quite meet that goal, then I get up the next day and try again. I have a mantra I sometimes repeat to myself: “Be calm. Choose joy. Show gratitude. Seek empathy. Love thyself.” Those words have helped me to stay centered and grounded through some very tumultuous times.

Dr. Dafeng Yao

Elizabeth and James E. Turner Jr. ’56 Faculty Fellow and CACI Faculty Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, Virginia Tech

What challenges have you faced as a woman in technology and how were you able to overcome them?

Last Saturday, a remote family friend told me that he was surprised by my achievements, because women “usually suck at technological fields.” This type of stereotypical and impostor syndrome-inducing microaggressions routinely happens to women in technology. They drag women down, making their work less and less enjoyable. It is like running in mud. Overcoming these challenges requires the society to improve, which unfortunately happens very slowly. The current system is not perfect. All women in technology need to read about impostor syndrome. Do not let gender-related issues negatively impact your self-esteem.

What can technology companies do to empower their women employees?

Technology companies need to put women in powerful decision-making positions. Give the benefit of the doubt to women. Women might not always look like or talk like the executives, board members, or presidents in stereotype-perpetuating Hollywood movies. That does not mean women cannot do the work. I have seen so many truly brilliant, devoted, and decisive ladies in the technology profession. Give women the opportunities to shine. Have faith in women.

Can you speak to the importance of gender diversity in technology roles?

Great minds don’t think alike. We need both men and women to contribute their ideas freely. Oftentimes, I was the only woman in the discussion and I had different opinions and ideas from others – good ones. Men and women have very different life experiences and perspectives, which may lead to different and equally valuable creative processes.      

Is there someone you look up to within the technology field?

I look up to many gentle giants, women and men in academia who work so hard on advancing women in computing. Barbara Ryder, my former boss at Virginia Tech, hired me twice and solved my two-body problem: long-distance relationship of a dual-career couple. Elisa Bertino at Purdue University put me in leadership positions that opened up many opportunities for me. Bhavani Thuraisingham at UT Dallas showed me that it is absolutely fine for a professional woman to talk about her family and life. I also have numerous male mentors who recognize my technical abilities. Having the support of those men as allies is extremely important. Interacting with these pioneers also allows me to see diverse yet equally effective leadership styles.  

How do you measure success in your current role as a female leader?

To me, success means more females are given the opportunities and resources to fulfill their career pursuits and are able to contribute to this field in a significant and meaningful capacity. The tech talent pipeline is very leaky, losing women all the time, especially mid-career females. I am the founder of a number of diversity events for female and underrepresented cybersecurity researchers, including the Women in Cybersecurity Research Workshop (CyberW) and the Individualized Mentor (iMentor) Workshop. Our field needs to be aware of the problem, acknowledge the problem, understand possible causes, and – most importantly – improve.    

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