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Women Succeed in ICT with Parents and Role Models

Karen Coppock

Technology can be a lonely – and sometimes intimidating – field for a woman. I was often the only woman in the computer lab when I was an undergrad in the mid-1980s. The same was true for my ten year career in the Latin American telecom industry. Often if there were another woman in a meeting, it would be a secretary.

I would frequently take very deep breaths before entering into a meeting as it is very intimidating to walk into a room full of men and confidently carve out a place for yourself. But I did carve out place for myself in the ICT industry – due to the support of my parents, role models and mentors. Technologists and educators can develop this critical support system for women in developing countries, to help encourage them to embrace technology and ICT-oriented careers.

Parents play a critical role

Parents play a key role in the development of their daughters’ personalities and professional aspirations. Technologists and educators can work with parents to encourage them to promote technology usage by their daughters at the earliest ages. This may be a multi-generational endeavor, but the earlier it starts, the earlier it will bear fruit.

My parents were critical in my professional development. They raised me to be very confident in myself and my abilities. My mother continually told me that I could be anything I wanted and encouraged me to think big. When I told her I wanted to be a nurse, she asked, “Why not a doctor?”

She was a very early adopter of computer technology in her word processing/graphics design firm and constantly exposed me to new technologies and opportunities. From my first job at AT&T through my current career as the VP of Consulting for Vital Wave Consulting, my mother has always been my biggest cheerleader and has encouraged me to excel in my ICT career and life.

My mother-in-law, Alice Schmidt, also came from a family that encouraged women in technology-oriented fields. She came from a long line of mathematicians – both male and female. It was always assumed that she would go to college, even though she graduated from high school in the late 1950s.

When she was 16, her Dad sat her down and said that that Michigan State had good applied physics department and Univ. of Michigan had good mathematics department and asked her which would be of most interest to her. This is not a question most teenage girls heard in 1958, especially those from non-wealthy families. Her friends said that the only job they could get was a teacher or a nurse, but Alice’s parents had opened her eyes to a much wider variety of options.

Vital Wave Consulting has found that several developing-country schools – especially primary schools – are providing orientation sessions to parents before introducing computers into the classroom. This is an excellent opportunity to begin to socialize the importance of ICT training for all students – female as well as male – and to encourage parents to encourage their girls to experiment with and embrace technology.

One approach would be to have female leaders of these sessions – or to have promising female technologists share their success stories in these sessions – to further establish in parents’ minds that females are viable players in this field.

Importance of Role Models and Mentors

Role models and mentors are another valuable support system for female technologists and members of the ICT ecosystem. Schools, businesses and communities can more formally institutionalize mentorship programs and mechanisms to expose girls to female role models to help them break through into the ICT field.

In the absence of role models, it is very difficult to break into a new field, but it can and has been done. For example, my mother-in-law, Alice’s first job in the early 1960s was at IBM. She worked as a computer programmer on a NASA contract for the Mercury and Gemini space missions. It was a very male-oriented environment and she had no real role models to look up to. She carved out a role for herself and subsequently helped pave the way for other women to enter the field after her.

In the two and a half decades between her entry into to the technology field and mine, several women had begun to break through the glass ceiling at technology firms. These women became my role models. In the almost two decades since I began my career, more and more women have broken through the technology leadership glass ceiling to even more prominent roles – Carly Fiorina’s leading HP, Margaret Whitman running eBay and Carol Bartz at the helm of Autodesk and now Yahoo. Unfortunately women CEOs of large tech firms are still relatively rare, especially in emerging markets, but they are appearing more and more often.

Mentors are also a very valuable resource. Over the past two decades, I have had the opportunity to work with – and be mentored by – some incredible women in the tech field. They took the time to provide me with important tips on how to succeed and thrive in a still male-oriented technology world.

Some of these relationships were informal, but others were structured through corporate mentoring programs. Programs of this nature were rare in Latin American telecom firms during my time there, but could be a very valuable mechanism to institute to begin to cultivate young women technologists in developing countries.

Lastly, schools – from primary through university – can nurture mentoring opportunities. I have visited my alma mater institutions several times to discuss my career path and encourage other young women (and men) to pursue a career in the international technology field. Events of this nature open students’ eyes to the diversity and breadth of career options and show that women – as well as men – can succeed in the technology field.

Technologists and educators can work with parents, highlight role models and cultivate mentors to help encourage women – as well as men – to embrace technology and technology-oriented fields.

5 Responses to “Women Succeed in ICT with Parents and Role Models”

  1. Your feelings of loneliness as the only women in meetings is, sadly, still true. Just check out these mentions from yesterday's TechCrunch50 and Samasource's experience there:

    LA Times: TechCrunch50: Women get short shrift

    It's a common refrain, but it always bears repeating: Why aren't women better represented at technology conferences? TechCrunch50 is no exception. "It's like a 20 to 1 ratio of men to women at this conference," said Stella Yu, a personal brand advisor from San Francisco. And that ratio manifests itself, she believes, in what happens on the stage.

    "Last year, they dissed Closet Couture. They said, 'It's not going to work. Nobody wants to see what's in your closet.' It's because everyone on the panel was male."

    Social Edge: On being a nonprofit (and a girl) at TechCrunch 50

    Oh, and on being a girl: there were only about 4 women in the demo pit (many of them founders), but people kept assuming that we were hired "booth babes."

  2. Talking with Mary Lou Jepsen today, she echoed your point about parents. She said that her parents made all the children do equal work on the family farm, and pushed her to excel as much as her brothers. Though she did point out that such equality wasn't the norm then. Men had the higher expectation to provide for the family.

  3. Watch an episode of the popular and excellent TV series "Mad Men" about managers and employees in the advertising business in the late 50's/early 60's is cringe-worthy, especially in the treatment of women. In talking to my mother about the program who was a 20-something in Manhattan, she saws the portrayals are extremely accurate. In 40 years, we've progressed significantly, albeit as Wayan first comment implies, we still have work to do addressing the gender gap and glass ceiling. But what about in emerging markets? If it is a male-dominated society, which I believe the majority are, there will be severe barriers. In Singapore (not an emerging market), when I was working at Intel, there was just as many women as men in the local Intel office. In China, in marketing, there was also about the same ratio. In Nigeria, one of the top two PC makers had a female CEO. The latter could be a random incident, but it would be telling to understand the role her parents had. If parents buck cultural trends (which is rare I believe), that will make a huge difference in a gender-neutral approach to educational and career interests.

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