IMAGINE A ROOM FULL OF WOMEN IN TECHNOLOGY

When a group for women in technology was formed in my city almost two years ago, I was thrilled to attend the first luncheon. But, honestly, I felt odd being there and I didn’t naturally feel our common bond. At the end of this first luncheon, the organizer asked me if I would be the keynote speaker at the second gathering. After saying yes, I spent two months in a panic trying to figure out what topic was relevant to us all.

Two nights before my speech, after months of pondering nonsensical topics including my mom’s suggestion that you can never go wrong talking about dressing for success, I was still left topic-less. At 3am I woke my husband and begged him to help me figure out why I was at such a loss in speaking to a room full of women in technology.

My husband, thank goodness, is the type who’s actually coherent in the middle of the night or there’s no telling what advice he might have given me. After a moment of silence he said, “You’ve never been in a room full of women in technology. You’ve always been one of one. So who are you in relation to them and what are the possibilities with that incredible room of intellectual, female trust?”

And so the challenge was put on the table to figure out what part of my journey as a woman in technology is actually our shared journey.

OVERSHADOWING TECHNICAL GIRLS

I was born two years after my genius big brother who won math and science contests and rooted himself as the geek of our family. In comparison, it was clear that I was more of a humanities kinda gal and I’d probably become a psychologist like my father or a political activist like my mother. Was my technical aptitude overshadowed by my brother’s simply because he was so smart as I’ve always believed? Or are girls’ technical aptitudes often overshadowed?

DISMISSAL OF FEMALES PURSUING TECHNICAL FIELDS

After a semester of introductory psychology and political science classes in college, I knew that my brain was melting and needed something very different. I followed some students into their classroom in the Engineering building on campus and walked out ready to change my major to engineering. At the time, I was at Northern Arizona University. But I knew that the University of Illinois, in my hometown, was the place to pursue engineering.

So I packed up, moved back to Urbana-Champaign, and landed ill-prepared in the office of one of the Engineering Deans to find out how to get started. He leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on his desk, and said, “Honey, have you considered Home Economics?” Was it my obvious lack of preparation that solicited this dismissal? Or are we often dismissed when we take unexpected steps into technical fields?

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE OF TECHNICAL WOMEN

When I was a mechanical engineering student, I was hired by John Deere for an intensive internship along with 5 other engineering students from other top Engineering schools in the country; all of whom were male, all of whom were math and science whizzes, which I was not, and all of whom were well over six feet tall — I’m 5 ft tall on a good day.

When we arrived on the first day, a top executive welcomed us and started asking probing questions to get to know us. We were standing in a circle and the conversation was happening a full foot over my head. Never in my life had I felt so short and invisible and I started to melt away. Except the executive was asking really interesting questions, and the other interns were acting shy and replying with short, simplistic answers. Suddenly I realized that I was needed.

The executive needed to know that he brought in a top-notch group of interns and that we would be the shinning stars that he was hoping for. So I piped up and spoke on all of our behalves, telling compelling stories about each of the interns who I had come to know over the previous few days.

Somehow the circle widened, I grew taller and that day I became the leader, the representative, for our group. Was it the fact that this particular group of guys was just shy and inexperienced that opened the door for me to lead the way? Or is it that we bring perspective and natural leadership to a field that longs for our emotional intelligence?

DERAILING WOMEN IN TECHNICAL JOBS

My first job out of college was with Andersen Consulting (Accenture). In my start group of 50 people, there were three female engineers (everyone else was either a male engineer or a business major). When we graduated from Andersen’s three-week training, we were all assigned to our first projects. And guess what happened? The three female engineers were all assigned to the same position on our first project — personal assistant (secretary) to the Partner on the engagement, requiring no technical aptitude at all.

Even such, the other two women became managers at Andersen within a very short time (and then went on to become influential leaders in their fields) and I went on to become a CEO. I always thought it was the rare similarities that the three of us shared that enabled all of us to overcome being initially pigeonholed. But have all successful technical women been grossly derailed only to rise past that? And more disturbing of a question, are there so few women in technical fields because derailment is prevalent and only a small handful of us persevere?

THE VERY NATURE OF WOMEN IN TECHNOLOGY

I’ve just started to skim the surface of what our shared experiences are as technical women and I recognize how valuable it would be to understand our commonality so that we can contribute to changing the experiences for future generations. But I’m nervous that the very nature of our similarities will prevent us from achieving this collective understanding.

We’re all so good at operating at the top of our game, managing it all, and not stopping to notice the struggles that we’re overcoming. In fact, if we share as much as I suspect we share, none of us like to stew in struggle — instead we overcome any struggles in our path immediately, move beyond them, and expect ourselves to do so on our own. Can we overcome our independence long enough to coact and change the cycle?

We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface. As we let down our guards and allow ourselves to admit that we can’t individually overcome the barriers facing women, we’ll begin to share, as women do, and uncover the intimate similarities we share. With this understanding we’ll know better where to focus our efforts and begin to make systemic change to answer my husband’s question, “What are the possibilities with this incredible room of intellectual, female trust?”