Why Women Should Consider Careers in the Tech Sector

ConnXus' team of women technology experts

“Life is too short to spend most of the day doing work that doesn’t excite or inspire you. For young women interested in the technology space, it’s an exciting time to get in the game and shape how technology can be used to advance the well-being of their communities. There are no limits on what is possible.” – Kesha Cash, General Partner, Impact America Fund

Kesha Cash, ConnXus board member and general partner of Impact America Fund

Kesha Cash, ConnXus board member and general partner of Impact America Fund

If you watch popular TV shows ranging from “Big Bang Theory” to “Mr. Robot” to “NCIS,” you may have noticed certain common themes in the way characters in technical or scientific jobs are portrayed. For the most part, they’re nerds. Geeks. Brainiacs. They drink Red Bull, love Star Trek, and obsess over World of Warcraft. Sure, they’re smart – but they’re also quirky, socially awkward, and usually male.

As with all stereotypes, the reality is far more nuanced – but the perceived male-dominated “geek culture” of many high-tech companies and startups does turn many women off. That’s one reason there’s a major national campaign underway to attract young American women to careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), including mentoring programs, robotics competitions, girls’ coding camps, and even Super Bowl half-time ads.

A World Beyond Programming

It’s hard to find any job today that doesn’t include the use of computers, so writing basic programming code is a useful skill. That doesn’t mean you must be a hardcore programmer to work in the IT sector, however. Across the nation and around the planet, there are myriad opportunities for women to be involved in technology other than coding, including sales and marketing, user training, account management, customer and membership services, procurement, or system administration.

Jennifer O-Neal-Douga, ConnXus Sr. manager of strategy and account development

Jennifer O-Neal-Douga, ConnXus Sr. manager of strategy and account development

Current demographic trends clearly indicate that there will be tremendous global opportunities for women in the technology sector, including start-ups. Savvy entrepreneurs are also realizing that there’s a real business advantage to a more diverse workforce.

“Businesses need us because we bring a fresh perspective,” says Jennifer O’Neal-Douga, senior manager of strategy and account development at ConnXus. “Women, and especially women of color, are more likely to have different viewpoints and see opportunities the status quo might miss. We help them avoid blind spots that could hurt the business.”

“In fact,” says ConnXus’ Salesforce administrator Crystal Miller, “I find many men actually value the skills that women of color bring to the workplace. Don’t be afraid to speak out, because they will listen to you.”

Getting Women to Stay

Another current stereotype is that women can’t succeed over the long term in the male-dominated technology sector. Unfortunately, female employees do face some very real challenges and obstacles – but they’re the result of cultural issues, not competence.

According to a 2014 study by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI):

  • U.S. women working in private-sector science, engineering, and technology firms were 45 percent more likely than men to leave the industry within a year.
  • 25 percent of the women reported that they felt “stalled in their careers.”
  • One-third of U.S. women in what the report calls “lab-coat, hard-hat and geek workplace cultures” felt excluded from social networks on the job.
Crystal Miller, ConnXus Salesforce administrator

Crystal Miller, ConnXus Salesforce administrator

On the plus side, however:

  • 80 percent or more said they “loved their work.”
  • More than half of U.S. women reported having “ambitions to reach the top.”
  • Since the previous study in 2008, fewer women in the tech sector said they were the only woman on their team.

More recently, prominent women in the tech sector have increasingly spotlighted the need for better work-family balance – a badly needed counterweight to the traditional “work hard, party harder” ethos of Silicon Valley that many of their male peers also welcome.

ConnXus: High-Tech in the Heartland

California is great, but not everybody has the means to live there. Today there are tech startups in every city and state, from Austin to Kalamazoo. And as the lines blur between industries and new technology markets emerge, the demand for women who “speak technology” will surely continue to grow, no matter where you live.

Take, for example, ConnXus, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider that revolutionizes supplier management by making it simple for procurement and supplier diversity professionals to manage global supply chains and achieve their goals of responsible and sustainable sourcing. A seven-year-old startup based in a northern suburb of Cincinnati, it was founded by an African-American former chief procurement officer, CEO Rod Robinson. From the start, Robinson partnered with Daryl Hammett, an early investor in ConnXus and former SVP/GM for industry-leading eye glasses retailer—Luxottica. Hammett aided in shaping ConnXus’ organizational culture that not only allowed women to learn and grow on the job, but actively encourage it. Hammett later came on board as co-owner and COO.

“The culture at ConnXus is very entrepreneurial,” says Jennifer O’Neal-Douga, senior manager of strategy and account development. “There’s an openness to trying new ideas and fresh thinking. Coming from the corporate sector, that was a big shift. Since I came here in 2015, my role has grown and changed many times. My favorite part is creative problem-solving on behalf of our customers.”

Carrie Hawkins, ConnXus account executive

Carrie Hawkins, ConnXus account executive

“From day one, Daryl encouraged me to step up and show what I could do,” says account executive Carrie Hawkins. “If I want to try something or learn something new, I just do it. I don’t need to ask permission. They really want you to succeed here. In fact, I like to tell Daryl that I intend to have his job if he ever retires.”

“Woman can be intimidated by information technology,” she adds. “They can also be intimidated in a male-dominated setting like a board room or business meeting. It’s important for me to earn their respect and gain credibility by being on top of my game.”

“I was working at a large bank before I came here,” says Salesforce administrator Crystal Miller. “It was a very corporate, hierarchical environment, so it took me a few months to get over the culture shock.

“ConnXus is a laid-back and relatively flat organization, so you can walk into Rod’s or Daryl’s office any time and ask for whatever you need. When you make a mistake, you don’t get fired or yelled at, you just learn from it and move on.”

‘I’m really not a risk-taker or an IT person,” admits senior member services manager Crystal Davis,” but I came to this start-up and I’m glad I took that chance. Traditional companies are outsourcing many of their functions to small businesses like ConnXus. Start-ups, technology companies – that’s the future.”

The Gender Gap Is Narrowing

According to a major 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, several long-term demographic trends are reshaping women’s working lives today, including employees in the tech sector. These shifts include:

  • In the U.S. and the European Union, almost half of the workforce is now female. “Women accounted for 46.8% of the U.S. labor force in 2015, similar to the share in the European Union.,” the study says. The percentage of women in the workforce will peak at 47.1% in 2025 before leveling off, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • The gender pay gap is narrowing. “Women earned 83 cents for every $1 a man earned in 2015, compared with 64 cents in 1980,” the authors write. “The pay gap has narrowed even more among young adults ages 25 to 34: Working women in that age range made 90% of what their male counterparts made in 2015.”
  • Women are still a distinct minority in leadership positions in the U.S., in both the private and public sectors. In 2017, only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female. Only 19% of seats in the U.S. Congress are held by women, and only about 25% of seats in state legislatures. Only 8% of U.S. governors are female.
Crystal Davis, senior manager of member services and early member of the ConnXus team

Crystal Davis, senior manager of member services and early member of the ConnXus team

Educational coding workshops such as We Can Code IT based in Cleveland, Ohio are looking to combat the lack of minorities in the technology field by teaching people how to code and get lucrative jobs in tech while focusing on inclusion and diversity. We Can Code IT was founded by a woman that felt underrepresented in the tech field and wanted to help other women realize their potential and close the gender gap in this field.

“Our focus is about women and people of color, the faces that are not generally represented in technology,” said President of We Can Code IT, Leslie Evans. She goes on to say, “If women are the primary purchasers in America, and every company involves tech at some level, it makes business sense for a company to have women on their team designing and working for them.”

“If a woman even has a thought or inclination that maybe she should try a technology skill, I would just tell her to do it. The reason is, if that inclination is there, she’s already a lot further ahead that a lot of other people. There is a huge demand and many opportunities out there. And, it’s a fun career! It’s a career where you can be creative, be an influencer and comes with flexibility.”

One of Silicon Valley’s largest employers has been in the news this year because of allegations of lingering gender bias. About one-third of employees at social-media giant Facebook are women, with 17 percent of technical roles held by females.

According to The Wall Street Journal, a former female Facebook engineer revealed that programming code written by women is rejected 35 percent more than code submitted by their male colleagues. Quoting from Facebook’s own initial study, “women waited 3.9 percent longer to get their code accepted, and received 8.2 percent more comments and questions than their male counterparts.”

After conducting a follow-up survey, a spokesperson for the social network told the Journal that the discrepancy was more about seniority than sex: “[This] reaffirms a challenge we have previously highlighted – the current representation of senior female engineers, both at Facebook and across the industry, is nowhere near where it needs to be.”

Access to Capital

Worldwide, twice as many men become entrepreneurs, but a rapidly growing number of women are starting new ventures. One persistent obstacle to increased involvement by women in the tech start-up sector is lack of access to venture capital. Although approximately 18% of new companies with venture capital funding have at least one female co-founder, they are still the minority of investments.

In terms of return on investment, that’s probably a poor strategy. According to a 2016 study of 300 companies and almost 600 founders by the venture capital firm First Round Capital, “investments in companies with at least one female founder meaningfully outperformed investments in all-male teams. In fact, companies with a female founder performed 63% better than investments with all-male founding teams.”

The report continues: “Three of First Round’s top ten investments of all time, based on value created for investors, had at least one female founder, far higher than the percentage of female tech founders in the data set. Simply stated, women are great technology entrepreneurs, and more of them need to be funded.”

Kesha Cash of Impact America Fund seconds that opinion. “As a black female venture capitalist,” says the Cincinnati-based investor, “I am focused on investing in high-growth tech businesses that are addressing social and economic problems for underserved Americans. My life experiences provide me with a cultural competence many other investors don’t have.”

Speaking from Experience…

Women in the workplace by ConnXus

The women of ConnXus disrupting and innovating the global supplier management industry through advanced software technology.

It’s always wise to learn from others’ success, and fortunately many women in the tech sector are actively encouraging other females to join their ranks. We asked some women who have not only survived, but thrived, in entrepreneurial businesses what advice they would offer to their female peers. Here are some highlights:

  • “Learn everything you can. You need to have both depth and breadth, so keep up with advances in social media and technology. When you’re a small-business owner, you’re completely dependent on what you earn. So, when opportunities present themselves, you should be prepared to take them. If you’re prepared and do your due diligence, you’ll be successful.” – Angelique Johnson, former IT specialist at Proctor & Gamble who now runs a minority and woman-owned photography business. “
  • “Let your clients know that you have a brain. Let your managers know that you want to move up and grow. Bring it on; be pleasant but aggressive.” – Carrie Hawkins, account executive at ConnXus
  • “Diversity of viewpoint is a strength in any workplace. My advice is to prepare yourself, be confident, know your stuff, and voice your opinion. Don’t try to be like a man – stand out in a positive and powerful way. Working in the IT sector in India, I was often the only woman in the room. I didn’t let it affect me, even when they didn’t immediately welcome or accept me.” – Shweta Vaidya, ConnXus research and design manager
  • “Women bring something to the table that men cannot, but that is something that should be embraced. The root of diversity, especially in the workplace, means accepting those who are different from you and learning to empower others’ strengths different from your own. As I developed from an intern to a full-time employee at a tech startup, I’ve experienced the real strength and influence this mindset has brought to our team.” – Shannon Frohme, ConnXus marketing manager
  • “Join groups of people who do what you do, get involved in volunteer opportunities, and keep on growing. Almost everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from other people. I like to surprise people by showing them what I can do.” – Crystal Miller, ConnXus Salesforce administrator
  • “Women are in the same place in technology-based startups now as they were earlier in other traditionally male-dominated fields as law, medicine, and finance. My advice is to just power through it – lean in and show them you can do the work. Don’t let the naysayers stop you. If you have the skills and the desire, you can make it.” – Jennifer O’Neal-Douga, senior strategy and account development manager at ConnXus
  • Take courses in both business- and STEM-related subjects, because there are so many ways to apply math, science, and technology in any business career. The entrepreneurial opportunities are out there.”– Crystal Davis, senior manager of member services at ConnXus

Go Forth and Conquer!

Not everyone starts their career in the entrepreneurial sector – in fact, some very successful women cite their time at established companies as an invaluable learning experience that gave them the skills they brought to the startup world.

“I don’t think I was ready to be an entrepreneurial right out of school,” recalls Angelique Johnson, a Cincinnati-based former IT specialist at Proctor & Gamble who later started her own photography business. “Success requires a level of discipline, and I learned that in my 21-and-a-half years at P&G. Now I’m able to apply that skill set and sense of structure to my own business.”

Angelique Johnson, founder of Angelique Johnson Photography

Angelique Johnson, founder of Angelique Johnson Photography

Similarly, Cash credits her own life and work experience for giving her a unique perspective on business and investing. “I grew up economically disadvantaged in Orange County, California, where I got my first job at age 12,” she explains. “Navigating my low-income upbringing in a wealthy county, being a first-generation college student at UC Berkeley as a mathematics major, and finally working as a mergers & acquisitions analyst at a large investment bank in New York City, all required me to understand and adapt to new environments with unfamiliar cultures. Ultimately, these experiences shaped a unique lens that I use to see the world and make investment decisions today.”

“I’d like to urge creative women, including women of color, not to rule tech out,” says O’Neal-Douga. “You may have the unique skills, such as quality assurance or marketing, that could help make a start-up business successful.”

Larissa Milne, an adjunct professor at Drexel University and co-owner of a travel media business, strongly recommends that every college student take at least one class on entrepreneurism: “No matter what you end up doing in life, the skills you learn in running a startup will help you. Most people will have many jobs or even different careers in their lifetime, so you never know when those skills will prove useful.”

Today Milne is showing the way to a new generation of potential entrepreneurs, many of them women, at Drexel’s Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship in Philadelphia. She was recruited by a former mentor, Dean Donna DeCarolis, who helped found the school in 2013 and is herself a strong proponent of women in entrepreneurial ventures.

Judging from the personal experiences of the women interviewed for this article, navigating the high-tech startup world requires in-demand skills and knowledge, self-confidence, and the ability to collaborate with all kinds of teammates – male and female, “geeks” and “suits” alike.

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About ConnXus: ConnXus supplier management solutions simplify the complexities of global supply chains and allow buyers to achieve their goals of responsible and sustainable sourcing. Founded in 2010, ConnXus is a NMSDC, CPUC-, CAMSC and State of Ohio-certified minority-owned business enterprise based in Mason, Ohio with local, regional, and international capabilities. For more information, go to www.connxus.com/about-us/.

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