Women & tech: still barriers to break through

Women and technology, pursuing an education in mathematics and science–it’s a big deal. Our next guest is going to talk with us about what this means for the workforce. Jennifer Ives is senior vice president of software and security at 3Pillar Global.

She’s worked around the world for last twenty years, helping all types of companies, large and small, find innovation and growth opportunities. She’s a coder, and her expertise is in geospatial and cybersecurity technologies, and she knows what she speaks about: what it takes to be successful as a woman in technology. Jennifer, thanks for joining us.

IVES: Thank you for having me today.

ABERMAN: I think this will be a question that a lot of listeners will want to know. Why did you decide to originally pursue a STEM education, and why did you choose technology as a career?

IVES: You know, it’s interesting. So, my father was a scientist. He had three daughters, and whether he had had daughters or sons. We were all going to do something in STEM. That was our choice in college, and one of my sisters went into medicine, the other one into statistical analysis, and I happened upon geospatial engineering, remote sensing, and fell in love with it from day one. But I have to tell you it was, it was his modeling and encouraging throughout our lives–the science fair projects, the importance of science and math–and it breaks my heart when I hear women today talk about the fact that not only is there an overt, but kind of the hushed, women can’t do it, or that’s not a woman’s job. I never heard that growing up. That was never a message that was in my household. It wasn’t even a message, right? Because there was no conversation of whether you can or can’t do it, it was here is what STEM is, and here are my expectations, right? My mom and dad had expectations for us.

ABERMAN: And yet, when you went out into the world as a software and engineer, what are the biggest hurdles you felt, and you’ve identified and seen, for being a woman in technology?

IVES: First, even in college, I was one of just a very few women in those STEM classes, right. When I was taking my hardcore science and technology classes, I was one of very few women. What I didn’t realize at the time is that about 34 percent of women, when I was in college,
were receiving and going through and getting degrees in STEM, now it’s 17 percent.

I can only imagine what it’s like for the young woman sitting in that class and potentially feeling uncomfortable in a classroom full of, maybe, people she’s not identifying with, or feeling as if they’ve been coding for much longer, because there is a stereotype and a belief amongst women–and I’m generalizing–but that–and actually men often say this, and I’ve spoken with Carla Brodley of Northeastern University and other deans of computer science across the country–who talk about the feelings of when young women are entering those classes, the discomfort they feel, that they’re already behind in their ability to code or their ability to take on new technologies.

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So in terms of a hurdle, I never saw it overtly as a hurdle. It was just, I knew that I was always working with men. And that was great, I’ve always gotten along well and had a great career. But I have to tell you: the hurdles have been potentially not seeing the next step, and I have been very lucky, in my career, that I have had many leaders, including many men in my career, who have shown me and identified the next step. So, for example, with my first job, it was hardcore technology.

I was working as a technology and an engineer and on the tech side of the business, and it was my CEO at the time who identified that not only do I love technology, but I love to work and talk about and engage around technology. And he was the one who, from the beginning–about three years in–identified that, hey, you do really good at helping identify with our clients, and those who have questions about technology, and having that conversation with them, because you love technology, and you’re really energized by technology, and you clearly love people and talking with people. It was the CEO at the time, and then I’ve had other people in my life, who have who have identified kind of the next step, and encouraged along in the world of technology.

ABERMAN: It strikes me that one of the things that, I think we fail generally at–I don’t think it’s just women–I think it’s generally people in the workforce, is: I don’t think that the students understand that, these days, technology is really probably one of the best avenues for self expression

IVES: Not only for self expression–I don’t think students today realize, because millennials, and let’s talk about the Gen Zs, those who are at the very oldest 21 at the moment, so these are kids in middle school, high school, and just graduated from college. They take technology for granted, and so it pains me when I talk with especially young women in middle school and high school, which I do often, it pains when they don’t even identify as technologists. They’re identifying with softer skills, and I’ll often ask them, well, how did you come to that conclusion, or how are you expressing a particular challenge in school or you’re delivering a project? And they’ll show me these amazing, not just presentations, but technology-based answers to problems.

And I’ll actually have to very specifically identify for them, you know that that is technology. You know that you just ran analytics using software, and sometimes even coding that software, and you’re only thirteen or you’re only sixteen. Do you understand what that is? So it’s amazing, almost the mind-shift that we have to share with young women in particular, that when they are touching technology, when they’re involved in technology, that is incredibly powerful, and they are not on the sidelines.

ABERMAN: You’ve teased something really interesting out in that last answer, which is there are clearly unspoken messaging that is being communicated to young women and older women in the tech workforce. You’ve seen these challenges yourself. What are some of the systemic issues that we face to increase STEM participation with women, and minorities, and other groups? What do you see?

IVES: I see that there isn’t an explicit and an implicit encouragement of technology as–it’s not a nice-to-have. Today, especially kids and college students, they need to be taking coding classes. It’s a language that they have to be exposed to, and I firmly believe that they need to be required to take computer science 101 and 102 classes.

ABERMAN: You didn’t talk about the “bro” culture, the sexism that’s inherent in technology. Is that because you were being nice, or because it’s more that we need to expose people first, and the “bro” culture will sort of dissipate as more women and minorities get into the workforce?

IVES: No, the “bro” culture is something that, unfortunately, I expect all the time. And that’s not to say that that has been every meeting that I’ve walked into in my lifetime. I worked with amazing groups of men and women, but the culture is something that generally, if a woman is exposed to that and experiences it early in her career, she will self-direct out of that, and that is a challenge. Because if you have a 22- or 24- or 27-year-old technologist who identifies that this is happening, and says, you know, that doesn’t make me feel comfortable, and I’m early enough in my career that I don’t know that I really have a voice it, that they will step aside.

I was lucky that in some of those situations, I had people who I could talk with. I feel blessed in those situations because, they did happen, and early in my career, I had some people who advocated for me. And then, when I became more confident in who I was, and in those conversations, I was able to advocate for myself. And I will tell you that I very strongly self-select the companies that I work with. 3Pillar Global is run by men and women, and that is no accident. That was one of the reasons I was attracted to 3Pillar on top of all the incredible work, and all the impressive brains that work at 3Pillar Global, from our founder David DeWolf on down, the amount of women who are present in the company is really impressive.

ABERMAN: I suspect that, in the coming weeks, we will have you back, because this issue, women in technology, is a significant one, for all of us to have the right workforce in the D.C. region. Thanks for joining us.

IVES: Thank you.