In Their Own Words: Leading Women in Tech Confront the Gender Gap

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(L to R) Kyoka Nakagawa, Honda R&D Co., Ltd.; Kendell Churchwell, Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance; Barbie Robinson, Sonoma County; Carolyn M. Starts, Sonoma County; Elenita Elinon, JP Morgan Chase.

With only a quarter of U.S. technology jobs currently filled by women[1], there is far more we must do as an industry to close the gender gap. And let’s be clear, closing the gender quality gap benefits society as a whole; there is a strong correlation between business performance and a gender diverse workforce; companies with more women on their executive teams are more likely to experience above-average profitability.  And while many companies are committed to closing the gap, fully understanding the value in doing so, the reality is that women, and particularly women of color, are still vastly underrepresented in today’s modern corporations. So why are we still challenged?

Some point to the lack of female mentors, individuals who inspire young women, and then keep them motivated once they express an interest in things like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Then, for the relatively few who do enter the tech world, other, more foundational forces, sometimes unintentional, like gender bias and even culture can prevent women from thriving – or worse, cause them to leave.

At IBM, we’ve been steadfast in our mission to advance women in STEM, particularly in the areas of artificial intelligence (AI), data science and more. We have an incredibly strong organization within the company that is driving innovative programs, like our Pathways to Technology (P-TECH) free public schools for students spanning grades 9 – 14. Within six years, these young women and men graduate with an associate degree in applied science, engineering, computers or other competitive STEM disciplines, along with the skills and knowledge to step easily into high-growth, “new collar” jobs. Also, IBM has joined the Ad Council and four other major tech companies working to bring more girls into STEM by showcasing the achievements of role models like our own distinguished engineer and IBM’s most prolific female inventor Lisa Seacat DeLuca as part of a program called, “She Can STEM.”

At IBM’s Think 2019 conference last month, IBM launched a new way for all of us to pledge to #BeEqual by sharing values we feel best resonate with the mission of creating a diverse, inclusive workplace for all.

At the conference, we also took the opportunity to speak with and capture the stories and voices of a handful of women in leadership roles at some of our most prestigious clients. These great people lead and drive technology units at companies that span a diverse array of industries, from automotive (Honda) to financial services (JPMorgan Chase).

This week we rolled out a new website dedicated to the voice-of-the-customer that presents video stories of these women and their work, as well as many others. But for now, in the spirit of International Women’s Day, I want to share some of the more poignant comments we heard about the imperative of pulling young women into STEM, into business, and into the new era of data.

The following are excerpts from broader interviews:

Carolyn M. Staats IT Manager ACCESS Sonoma County
“We often feel that in order to demonstrate our ability to accomplish goals, we must follow the long-established path and succeed using it.  But we can chose our own path to reach the goal. We don’t have to show up as others have in the past – that is not how we transform.  When I realized I was confusing the path with the goal it was an epiphany.  I wanted to create value in my life and the lives of others. Getting bogged down in making the path work was a mistake.  Ignoring the voice was a mistake. Feeling like I couldn’t say “no” as things mounted on my plate was a mistake.  When we’re authentic, we can take the best of our gifts and use them.  We can try and fail and then try again.

There’s a Japanese proverb, 七転び八起き, which roughly translates as, ‘fall seven times, rise eight times. The math seems flawed as you can’t stand up one time more than you’ve fallen, yet it always spoke to me of resilience‎. I read an interpretation saying the proverb is not about resilience but transformation. Instead of falling and starting over, it’s about inner change elevating you to a new starting place. It is about getting up and then rising again. This is how I see women in STEM, we have the ability to vision, connect and unite. We endure. That’s important if we want to have a transformative effect on our lives and our society.”

Candace McCabe, Solutions Architect responsible for information governance and privacy, J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc.
“As a female, you’re likely to end up in a room where you’re the only different voice so it’s important to have a strong voice to represent what you’re thinking. If our work was dependent on the typical, non-diverse opinions present in developing software or solutions, we wouldn’t have some of the great things we have today. The perspective a woman brings to that table is always valued and should be. It’s incumbent upon those of us who are already there to encourage more women to enter the technology field. It’s extremely vital we encourage each other daily to stay because statistically women exit technology faster than the pipeline can bring them in.”

Debi Tadd, Sr. Manager, Information Governance Operations, Davita Kidney Care
“Young girls are bullied especially if they have a left-thinking brain.  They may not be into makeup or fashion and may be more curious about how things work. My favorite quote is Henry Stanley Haskins, who states: ‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us. And when we bring what is within us out into the world, miracles happen.’ If we encourage girls to reach their potential, to continue to investigate, to be curious, to bring that desire to know out, that’s when we see great things as the next generation of leaders who will help move us beyond today, for example, further into space, or with new discoveries in medicine.”

Elenita Elinon, Executive Director of Quantitative Research at JP Morgan Chase
“Every critical event in my life has come about because I became uncomfortable and I decided to step out of my normal role and just try something new. And I was, in most cases, rewarded in a positive way. If there’s one thing I can advise – it’s to stop being comfortable because you will grow when you reach out and you do something just challenging for yourself. Ask for more responsibility, get that extra assignment, you know, whatever the case might be. At every age, there is a stretch role for, for women to take on. And I always suggest taking on that stretch role.”

Kendell Churchwell, Senior marketing data analyst for Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance
“My advice to younger women who are looking at STEM careers is to read as much as you can about the subject area that you’re considering going into. The more you read, the more you know and that will increase your confidence. I know women struggle with that in general and that is exactly how you’re going to get the confidence. The second thing I would recommend to someone is to make sure you’re able to communicate the technical aspects of what you’re working on and be able to communicate with others and work collaboratively. You’re going to gain a lot more experience and you’ll succeed more often that way.”

Kyoka Nakagawa, Chief Engineer, Advanced Engineering Process Division, Honda R&D Co., Ltd.
“The automobile industry has been dominated by male engineers, but more female engineers are entering the field. I think it puts us much closer to the life considerations for the car and of ourselves – so I really appreciate that more female engineers are coming in to enrich all of our points of view and bring us closer to more people’s lives. I think a women’s perspective lets the industry look at life more fully. That’s making products better and that’s better for everyone.”

Barbie Robinson, Director, Department of Health Services, Sonoma County “There’s an African proverb that says, when spider webs unite they can tie up a lion.”


[1] Source: Department of Labor

CMO, IBM Watson

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