Mentor moments : Inspiring women in tech

It seems 2013 was a prime year for furthering the story of women in the tech sector.  Every era is tagged with its own feminist movement, and the present day is ripe with initiatives to spur girls’ interest in math and science.  Not only is this nation in desperate need for more math and science students, but career paths following these tracts have yet to reach a gender equilibrium.

A recent Yale study cited by The New York Times notes that only 14 percent of physics Ph.D.’s in the US are women, earning an average salary $4,000 less than male counterparts.  The disparity certainly doesn’t help the cause of gaining girls’ interest in the STEM fields – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

While it seems media’s showered us with “women in tech” stories almost non-stop these past few months, I think the important takeaway is that women are sharing their stories.  Nothing is more inspiring than experience, and these first-hand anecdotes will lay a foundation of accountability that can only take women further.  Simply put, we must both mentor and be mentored.

  • Mentor Moments

In the spirit of sharing inspiration through personal experience, I’ve pulled together some of my own “mentor moments,” those times I learned a lesson or two from a woman leader in tech.

Fresh Perspective

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The story of tech has changed, but the gender disparity has moved little in the past four decades.  The world of “brogrammers” lives on, despite women being the majority demographic using social media on connected devices, leveraging a broader range of smartphone apps on a daily basis, and making up more than half of computer-touting corporate America.

Technology is more integrated into more aspects of a woman’s life, and I’m hoping this merging of tech into fashion, entertainment and business will encourage girls to learn more about the stuff powering their favorite gadgets and services.

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A new story for pop-culture

Indeed, the very idea of girls in tech needs to change in pop culture, and intersecting technology with popular girl-specific interests could help the transition.  Contextualization will be an important tactic for developing anyone’s interest in tech education, even beyond the lines of gender.  And learning the basics of code, some say, will soon be the new standard for literacy in the US.

“Public narratives about a career make a difference,” writes Catherine Rampell in The New York Times earlier this month in a piece titled “I Am Woman, Watch Me Hack.” “The most common career aspiration named on Girls Who Code applications is forensic science. Like Allen, few if any of the girls have ever met anyone in that field, but they’ve all watched CSI, Bones or some other show in which a cool chick with great hair in a lab coat gets to use her scientific know-how to solve a crime. This so-called CSI effect has been credited for helping turn forensic science from a primarily male occupation into a primarily female one.

“There is, of course, no pop-culture corollary for computer science. A study financed by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that recent family films, children’s shows and prime-time programs featured extraordinarily few characters with computer science or engineering occupations, and even fewer who were female. The ratio of men to women in those jobs is 14.25 to 1 in family films and 5.4 to 1 in prime time.”

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Making software more human

At the other end of this transitory phase lies a world of more interactive interfaces, conducive to human nature.  Those building the gadgets and apps for the average user will find code as a communicative standard, and the juncture of interfacing with end users will hopefully draw more interest to STEM fields.

“By stating that coding is the new literacy, I don’t believe it will be the literal language we speak – but it will be the requirement to be able to meaningfully influence the world in the next generation,” says Penny Herscher, President and CEO of FirstRain.

“While the best tools, devices and applications will be simple and elegant and will remove any need to understand how they are built, they will also exercise so much control over our access to information, that to have influence you will need to be able to create and modify them.”

Where women can excel in their contribution to the tech sector is in applying their experiences from other industries. Fields like marketing and public relations have been more appealing to women in recent decades, with the most experienced finding their leadership skills can benefit the tech sector.  From advertising to human resources, technology and analytics are being put to work in more departments of a given organization, and as software becomes more human, it can learn from these other industries and corporate departments.

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Interdisciplinary experience

Rewriting tech’s story in pop-culture is Sprinpad’s new CEO, Jacqueline Hampton.  She’s newer to the tech scene, having gone to graduate school to study business, and cutting her teeth in the finance sector.  Her closest work with tech came at TIME Inc., where she witnessed the introduction of smartphones and tablets, and the demise of another pop-culture staple – print media.  With this, Hampton ushers in her own fresh perspective on how women can actually help technology services to become more mainstream.

“If you think about the mainstream user, it’s the ability to understand in a different way,” Hampton says.  “There’s a difference in reading people and understanding their experience, and that’s what women can bring to the table.  Read the crowd and tailor the message, and ask how you can help simplify that.”

Hampton’s past experience has helped her edge into the tech sector in other ways, namely being one of a few females in other organizations.

“From my background – Business school is predominantly male, finance is predominantly male – TIME was the most balanced,” Hampton recalls.  “Looking at the digital companies we talked to over the years, what I see is that women in tech are making strides and more prominent than existed before, but in general the numbers are still low.

“I think it’s important for women to be in this space as with any space, because we bring so many qualities at the table,” says Hampton.

“You are not free to ignore it.”

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The need for more women in tech has been established, recounting the various ways in which women can contribute to an industry that will become increasingly humanized and deeply integrated into nearly every facet of most individuals’ lives.  But harping over these facts get us nowhere – we must take action.

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Called into accountability

 Laura Yecies, the CEO of file-sharing platform SugarSync, recently shared a well-known Jewish saying that calls us all into accountability:

“It is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to ignore it.” (Mishna, Ethics, 2:21)

When Yecies sat down for an interview in my CEO Series, she shared her own experience in leveraging technology to be a better worker and a better mother.  Now she’s leading a company that’s making it happen for other women.

 “As mobile technology further develops there will be literally no task that requires someone to be on a desktop computer.  As we have full availability of our data and applications we will gain even further flexibility in how and where we do our work,” Yecies says.

 “Of course the work must be done and it is a long day for moms who work full time but having flexibility on time and geography can help us be available to our children during key times of the day or important events.”

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Engineering girls for a man’s world

Another step towards re-writing the story of women in tech is Debra Sterling, the down-to-earth founder of GoldieBlox.  A Stanford engineer herself, she spent much of her childhood wondering why toys were so engendered.  Setting out to make engineering fun, GoldieBlox uses configurable games to gain girls’ trust and interest.

Sterling found that most “engineering” toys for girls were merely boys toys painted pink. “As a woman, as I’m engineering this toy, I’m showing people why we need female engineers,” Sterling explains. “I don’t know if a guy would be able to build this toy.”

For more inspiration from tech leaders, read my entire CEO Series here.

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About Kristen Nicole

Named by Forbes as a top influencer in Big Data, Kristen Nicole is currently a Senior Editor at SiliconANGLE.com. She got her start with 606tech, a Chicago blog she dedicated to the social media space, going on to become the lead writer and Field Editor at Mashable. Kristen Nicole has also contributed to other publications, from TIME Techland to Forbes. Her work has been syndicated across a number of media outlets, including The New York Times, and MSNBC. Kristen Nicole published her first book, The Twitter Survival Guide, and is currently completing her second book on predictive analytics. Follow my work (and some sprinklings of personal interests) on Google+