Everyone should have a mental toolbox. During tough challenges, you acquire strategies, phrases, and wisdom from a diverse group of people, to be taken out and used for later problems. I have gathered some powerful tools from female IT leaders.
I listened to Wal-Mart CIO Karenann Terrell declare: I am a woman and that will never change. Translation: I will not downplay being a woman.
Adriana Karaboutis, formerly Dell CIO and now executive VP of Technology and Business Solutions at Biogen, told me: "Get out of your own way." Translation: Stop listening to that inner voice that tells you you're not ready for the next step.
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Joan C. Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at University of California's Hastings College of the Law, taught me the term "gender judo." Translation: Flip societal expectations of norms for men and women, as needed.
I heard another powerful phrase last week at the Women in Tech panel discussion at Interop New York, from Michele Chubirka, senior security architect at Postmodern Security: "Why not?" Translation: Stop limiting your career and life choices. (That's great advice for men, too.)
Our audience for the panel discussion included female IT professionals plus 10 female high school students from the Bronx Academy for Software Engineering and the Bronx International High School. Their visit to the Interop conference was organized by the Community Corps, NPower's skills-based volunteering program that connects technology professionals with nonprofits and education partners (in this case, Digital Ready, a New York City Department of Education initiative).
One of the high school students asked Chubirka for advice on how to decide between two things she was passionate about: technology and dance. Chubirka told her: You don't have to choose. You may pursue a tech career and continue to pursue dance, art, or music.
My fellow panelist Lauri Apple, technology evangelism specialist at online retailer Gilt.com, went on to say that she has colleagues who do just that: tech career by day, art exhibition by night.
"I talked myself out of things," Chubirka said. Stop saying "I can't," she advised.
At a social meetup later in the week, I met two women who had both attended the panel and asked them what they were taking back to the office. Both said the same thing: "Why not?"
For me, the best part of the event was an informal mentoring session I had with five of the students, all 10th graders at the Bronx Academy for Software Engineering, where they are working with Java and Python and doing robotics projects. They told me eagerly about designing Tumblrs and Web pages, finding small problems in code, and making a robotic fish move through a course. "That fish was stubborn," one of them told me. But she was smiling. She beat that problem.
Their high school, a public school with a lottery system, has a sophomore class this year of about 110 students, including 17 women.
These 17 young women had to decide in the eighth grade to apply for the opportunity.
For women pursuing tech careers, the junior high school timeframe matters. Wal-Mart's Terrell speaks of this age as a key time young women walk away because of bullying. At the same time, schoolwork gets more challenging. Young women might not look around and see many role models. They also don't see many female technologists on television or in movies.
This is one reason I think it is imperative for women in IT to tell their career stories -- early, often, and loudly, so that girls see women who have done it and succeeded. And as my fellow panelist, Garima Thockchom, CMO of cloud startup RackWare, said, we must show young women that there is much more to IT than coding. For example, you might start in engineering and move into marketing, as she did.
I was delighted to hear that a mechanical engineer visited our local elementary school last week to talk about designing games -- a female mechanical engineer.
One immediate way to make an impact in local communities is to do just that: Be present as a role model. Your peers aren't the only ones who want to hear about your career path, with all its twists and triumphs: Young women do, too.
Women in tech face grueling schedules. We juggle personal lives and workloads that push us just as hard as we will let them. But if you say you don't have time to go out and speak to young women, I ask you to think about those 17 young women working hard in the Bronx Academy for Software Engineering.
Here is what one of the high school students said of the panel discussion: "They taught me how they believed in themselves and how every time somebody doubted them, they said, 'Why not?' That has kind of inspired me to follow this path and not believe what people say."
Why not? Put it in your toolbox. Then get out and share it.
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