Women In IT: The Next Generation

A walk-through at the University of New Hampshire Interoperability Lab reveals lessons on how to solve IT's image problem.

Lorna Garey, Content Director, InformationWeek Reports

March 7, 2014

7 Min Read

There's plenty of angst about the number of women pursuing IT careers. Some of it's warranted, some is overblown, as veteran IT pro Tammie Colivariti pointed out in a recent InformationWeek column, "Women, IT & The Outrage Machine." But one thing most can agree on is that bad PR is part of the problem. The tired stereotype of IT teams as a bunch of guys parked in front of monitors for 10 hours a day surrounded by desiccated pizza and empty Mountain Dew cans isn't helpful.

What's not so clear is how to appeal to STEM-oriented young women -- and men -- lured by biotech, clean energy, healthcare, and other career options that promise opportunity, a way to give back, good pay, and few 70-hour weeks hunting for bugs in code. What can universities and industry do to convince the best and brightest that technology can be just as rewarding?

To find out, I headed north to the University of New Hampshire InterOperability Laboratory. The facility houses gear from around 150 member companies ranging from Apple, Alcatel, Cisco, and Ford to Microsoft, Samsung, Teradyne, and VMware. The lab's director, Erica Johnson, a UNH-IOL alum, has spearheaded the facility's pending move to anchor a new 35,000-square-foot downtown Durham space. As a nonprofit and the only facility of its scale that runs in partnership with a major university, it has little trouble adding to its roster of industry supporters -- $25 million in gear is donated and on loan for use by about 120 graduate and undergraduate student employees, 20% of them women. The lab also sponsors plugfests throughout the year and runs internships for rising high school seniors -- a powerful recruiting tool for UNH.

Getting hired here is tough. There's huge competition among applicants to work in one of the facilities' 20 consortia, from IPv6 (Johnson's specialty) to wireless LAN, to the OpenFabrics Alliance, and digital living and home networking. But those who make it through are essentially assured jobs on graduation. Some get multiple offers.

The lab looks to hire a range of majors, not just those in computer science. Johnson says that everyone starts on an equal plane, and that she's seen philosophy students come up with valuable insights. An example is Michayla Newcombe, a business admin major who'd never heard of IPv6 before she came to work at the lab -- and who now manages the IPv6 consortium.

If this seems like a good place to find the next generation of IT innovators, you're right.

"My inspiration is driven by puzzles and patterns," says Ainsley-Aude Croteau, a sophomore at Great Bay Community College in Portsmouth, N.H., with a double major in computer technologies and programming languages. "I don't see coding as a math problem or a chore. I see it as puzzle pieces that I need to place together carefully in order to get the big picture." Croteau says a lack of confidence -- that nagging inner voice that we’ve all heard -- is a problem.

"I spent four years after high school working dead-end jobs and selectively taking general courses. No one really thought I had the motivation or intelligence to be a technology student," she says. She’s proving them wrong by earning straight As. "If there is an opportunity to help out, or jump ahead, or learn -- take it! Always prove that you can do more, and never step back when you can take the lead in anything."

Lauren DiBella, a grad student with an IPv6 focus, does have a female role model. "My mother has been a principal software engineer since I was little, and she was usually the one working while my father stayed home to take care of my sister and me," says DiBella. "I actually never wanted to work with computers, but once I graduated with a BA in sociology/justice studies, I realized I wanted to be more on the technical side of criminal justice." Like Croteau, she had naysayers. "I've had teachers and peers who did not think I would make it this far. I just had to focus on what I was doing and why I was doing it. That was all that mattered, and I'm still here just doing my best."

Justice studies, like IT, is a male-dominated area. "I hardly have any women in my classes," DiBella says. "I wish more women would take a chance in this major even if they thought they would fail. They might surprise themselves. Or if not, you can always switch majors, so you might as well try if you’re interested."

[Women are in a unique position to enhance and strengthen IT. Read Female IT Leadership: Find Your Voice.]

Something many of the young women at the lab have in common is a career interest outside technology. Croteau and DiBella point to the need for active mentoring and encouragement and the need to make sure students in a variety of fields understand that learning a programming language doesn’t rule out working in law enforcement or any other career. In fact, it can be the key to getting ahead. The future is digital, after all.

Marion Dillon majored in mathematics and works with the Home Networking Consortium. "I’ve always been interested in how things work," she says. "I love working in technology because it allows me to be in the know about things that the everyday person uses but knows very little about." These students recognize that the gender imbalance is a popular topic, but make no mistake — no one wants or expects special treatment.

"There’s a lot of discussion about how to handle the lack of women in technology," says Dillon. "One challenge I think everyone is facing is how to handle this imbalance, and improve upon it, without practicing reverse sexism by giving women extra chances or extra attention. It’s a hard balance to meet: wanting to encourage women in technology fields, but also wanting to encourage equal treatment for everyone.”

As a nonprofit, vendor-neutral lab, the UNH-IOL’s mission is collaboration. That means testing across consortia and varied gear for QA and interoperability, sure, but also growing the next generation of engineers to appreciate a range of skill sets. Among the lab’s value statements are commitments to integrity and employee empowerment -- messages literally written on the walls.

Newcombe, the IPv6 lead, says that she’s seen an increase in women applying and working at the lab since she started. "I applied to the IOL without fully understanding what we did here," she says. "The lab provides a great learning environment where anyone is willing to help and answer your questions."

The lab also has on staff some female tech pros, who illustrate how far we’ve come in some areas. "I was told by an electrical engineering professor that 'girls' didn't make very good engineers," says Christina Dube, senior manager of the bridge functions group and a 1992 UNH electrical engineering grad. "It was pretty frustrating. I don’t think that he actually believed that, but that he was using it to try to encourage me to switch majors. I stuck it out, and am incredibly grateful."

Want to network with other women in tech? Female IT leaders attending the InformationWeek Conference can join InformationWeek.com Editor In Chief Laurianne McLaughlin and Rebecca Kaul, President of the UPMC Technology Development Center, for a peer networking breakfast. Then join your peers at our Interop Women in Technology Panel & Luncheon for an open forum to discuss how to advance in an IT organization, keep your skills sharp, build fruitful relationships with colleagues, learn effective dispute resolution techniques, and build a mentoring network. Space is limited to 50 participants.

About the Author(s)

Lorna Garey

Content Director, InformationWeek Reports

Lorna Garey is content director of InformationWeek digital media.

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