Women in Technology – Where we are, where are we going?

Last Thursday (November 8, 2012) for lunch several hundred people gathered in the sixth floor ballroom of the Washington State Convention Center for the PASS Women in Technology luncheon.  My first thought when I entered that room to set up at the bloggers tables was “Wow.”  Not only that they could transform the keynote room into a dining hall in less than two hours, but also the fact that so many people were going to attend a lunch and talk about women in technology.

I set up at the bloggers table with Jes Borland (b | t), Sarah Strate (b | t), Allen White (b | t), Karen Lopez (b | t), and Bill Watson.  On stage were new PASS board member Wendy Pastrick (b | t) as the moderator, and panelists Stephanie Higgins, Denise McInerney (t), Jen Stirrup (b | t), Kevin Kline (b | t), and Kendra Little (b | t).  Current PASS president Bill Graziano (b | t), wearing a kilt (for WIT or because it was #SQLKilt day?) gave the opening remarks.

Bill opened by mentioning that he was the only male at the first Women in Technology lunch 10 years ago.  This year’s lunch had over 720 attendees, with about an equal mix of men and women.

Stefanie Higgins reflected that 67 people attended the first WIT lunch.  Stehanie got exposed to IT in high school, she was the only girl in her class to sign up for computer course.  Later, in college, even though she was an English major, she still hung out with the computer science students.  She said the college professors back then had a bias against women in technology.  She was undeterred, and started taking Microsoft certification exams in the late 1990s.

Denise followed by saying there were not many women at her first summit in 2002.  Over the years, though, she said that the PASS summit and the SQL community seemed to understand the challenges women faced in the techonological fields.  Gatherings, halllway meetings, and other venues all contributed to bringing up the topic and like issues, and not all of the discussions were easy ones.  We’ve come a long way though.  In 2011 the 24 Hours of PASS dedicated their entire event to showcase only women speakers.  Last year 15% of the attendees and speakers were women.

Kevin Kline addressed the crowd as a former founding member and president of PASS.  He mentioned that one of the early challenges the SQL community faced was that they didn’t have the money or the resources to compete with the giants like IBM and Oracle.  Instead, the group focused on making the confernce the most welcoming experience it could be.  But it wasn’t enough to just be welcoming, we had to allow the women to get involved.  We need to challenge them when they’re young.

Jen Stirrup, this years PASSion award winner, attends a lot of the SQL events in Europe.  She observes that female participation in the technology fields there is declining.  Women are becoming more disengaged in IT and data.   She is trying to get women more involved through the PASS events in Europe.  She noticed that there is a growing interest in a few countries, such as Portugal and Poland.

Kendra Little, MCM and MVP, has seen big changes in the last ten years.  She loved working with data back then; loving it, but not real sure what to do with it.  She always envisioned herself as an employee somewhere, but was always looking for more opportunities to learn.  Her love of technology led her to start speaking at SQL Saturdays and other PASS events.  She soon found out that she could teach people, and she had knowledge to share, and saw herself as a mentor.  She loved the experience and feedback, and realized that she could become a consultant.  Today she is one of the founding members of Brent Ozar Unlimited.  Her advise to women is to find out what you can share with others, and get involved.

The floor was then opened up to questions to the panel.  All the questions were excellent, some provided comments and experience stories.  Some of the highlights:

  1. Women don’t want to.  How do we push them?  Women can be intimidated in a male dominated environment.  Help them by giving them an opportunity and a safe workplace.  Kevin mentoined that women aren’t necessarily in it for the money.  Women don’t want to be stuck in a cube farm, they want to help people.  Appeal to their values.
  2. How do I start a local WIT chapter?  SQLPass.org has resources.
  3. Buck Woody (b | t) offered from the floor that he got his daughter involved in SQL Saturdays, helping with his presentations.  She plans on going into a science field in college.
  4. How do you maintaint a work/life balance?  It’s hard to get flex time working 50 – 60 hours a week.  One suggestion was to start your own business, but this may not work for everyone.  Kendra said to track where you spend your time.  Use the data, analyze it, and make proposals to your employer.  Offer to work from home – remote in, use a webcam.  Kevin said to show them you’re more productive at home, and then go and prove it.
  5. Girls want to be cheerleaders, not technology geeks.  How do we expose them to technology?  Get your daughters involved, perhaps through video games.  Show them that “geek is cool”.
  6. Provide team building activities geared more towards their interests.  Don’t always assume that women want to participate in the more testosterone skewed activities such as go-karts, foosball, or river rafting (unless you’re Jes, and then  you want to show them that you can kick the boys’ behinds 🙂  ).

I came away from my first Women in Technology lunch with a different perspective, which I suspect was the goal.  I didn’t realize that there are a lot of invisible barriers to women in the tech fields, whether self-imposed through their own perceptions, or actual chauvinsist roadblocks.  We all need to encourage more women to get involved with technology, whether it be SQL Server, Oracle, networks, infrastructure, or what have you.  And, judging from this latest PASS summit, the SQL Server community is paving the way.

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About Gill Rowley

I live in Madison suburb, working as a Senior Consultant for Talavant. I like hunting, fishing, working out, my boat, playing with my rescued bull terrier Lola, and gourmet cooking. Oh, yeah, and I play men's fastpitch softball.
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