Tech Careers for Women Abound

Fall 2017, News
Sandi Barr, Co-Founder and Organizer of Omaha Girls Who Code—Abraham Branch Club

NETWORKING AND MENTORING PROGRAMS ENCOURAGE INTEREST

BY MARY LEE HARVEY DIRCKS

Omaha ranks 18th in the best cities for women in tech—tying with San Francisco—nudging the pay gap in that field to 92.7 cents on the dollar in our metro area, according to the 2017 SmartAsset.com study. Women also hold 24.3 percent of tech jobs in Omaha, which is in step with the national statistic, hovering at around 25 percent.

Rebecca Stavick, executive director at Do Space, answers yes to anyone who questions whether or not the “Great American Dream” still exists. “I like to argue that in a midsized town like Omaha, it is still possible. There are always problems to solve here so there are always opportunities for people who are willing to help solve those problems. I started at the bottom, working a minimum wage job, and now I’m an executive director in just a few years!”

She contends that Omaha in general is great at utilizing talent. “If you are talented and ambitious, I believe you will be successful in this town.” Stavick moved to Omaha in 2010 and worked for Omaha Public Libraries, shelving books for minimum wage while she finished her Master’s of Library and Information Science degree from San Jose State University, remotely, graduating in 2012.

Stavick worked hard, earned promotions and expanded her technical knowledge through education and independent learning. She was appointed executive director of Do Space in February of 2015, with the grand opening in November of that year.

Do Space is Omaha’s first digital library, offering free access to everything tech: computers, software, 3-D printing, laser printing, high speed internet and tech support and education tailored for every age group. The aim is to empower the Omaha community with technology and to offer a variety of tech education opportunities at no charge, Stavick says. Between 50 and 60 free programs are scheduled every month, targeting all ages—from babies to senior citizens.

“It can be a challenge convincing people that we are totally free and accessible 90 hours a week,” she says. “Our two biggest goals are to bridge the digital divide in Omaha and boost digital skills,” Stavick says. The digital divide refers to the gap between what people can or cannot accomplish due to a lack of access to technology. “Increasingly, most people do have access to a cell phone of some kind, but not everyone has a data plan, and using a phone is a lot different than sitting at a computer using Excel,” she explains.

“The second goal is boosting digital skills. We don’t want to merely provide access; we want to also help teach people what to do with that access and provide additional support beyond just, ‘here’s a computer,’” she says. Stavick stresses the need to move the skill level of tech beginners to intermediate, and intermediate to advanced levels as the nature of work changes in the coming decades. “As technologies change, we have to ask what we can do for people to boost those skills so they can remain competitive in the job market,” Stavick says.

“It’s important that Do Space is a welcoming and inclusive space to everyone,” she says. In terms of empowering women, Do Space enforces a firm code of conduct for acceptable behaviors and supports individuals coming to staff members when problems arise. “If someone feels uncomfortable at an event or program, they can come to staff and know that staff will follow up and take action,” Stavick says. “Another thing about Do Space that helps to make women feel that this a place for them is that it is run by a woman, and about 60 percent of staff are women.”

Do Space attracts on average 500 visitors a day, and of the Do Space members who are repeat users, 54 percent are women. Women are empowered to learn and progress on freelance and entrepreneurial endeavors by accessing cutting edge technology and printing labs at Do Space, with children in tow if needed, she adds. And Stavick is mindful to draw from a wide range of both men and women as speakers and instructors for events and programs.

“Those types of things minimize the opportunity for women to feel uncomfortable, and that’s really important.” It’s no secret that companies need and want a diverse workforce, so the low national average of women only occupying 25 percent of technical jobs garners a great deal of attention and initiatives to attract and keep women in tech. “Often people will point the finger at women and say, ‘Why don’t you like tech? Why are you leaving? What’s wrong with you?’” Stavick says.

“Women love tech as much as men do. There’s no biological difference in terms of talent or ambition or any of that stuff, regardless of what that guy at Google has to say about women,” she remarks, referring to a Google employee who wrote an internal memo that went viral, claiming women’s lack of achievement in tech was due to biology. “It’s not that women aren’t good at tech or don’t love it. It’s that once girls start to get into middle school and high school, there’s a dynamic at work where something is going on that makes girls feel uncomfortable or that it’s not cool to be in tech.

The issue is not about women. There is some kind of broader social context impacting those decisions on whether girls get into tech or stay in tech. And part of it is about how boys treat girls, how men treat women, and even how women treat other women sometimes,” Stavick says.

The National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) reports that women are leaving IT at a rate that is more than double that of men—at 41 versus 17 percent. Stavick references an American Community Survey that suggests the main reason women leave tech mid-career is because they are treated unfairly, are underpaid and are not given the same opportunities to advance as their male counterparts.

“We do need more initiatives to get more women in tech and keep them, but if you want to get to the heart of the issue, these are the core issues,” she states. “If you can’t advance and you hit that glass ceiling, why would you stay?” One woman in Omaha who successfully broke through that glass ceiling is Robyn Messerly, chief information officer at Nebraska Furniture Mart (NFM). “There is a lot of gender bias in IT,” Messerly acknowledges, but adds that she used that bias as a motivating factor to succeed.

Early in her leadership career, Messerly accompanied her Chief Information Officer (CIO) to conferences where she was the only woman present. “Often people would introduce themselves to the CIO, who was a man, and not even shake my hand or acknowledge I was even with him,” Messerly says. “Being made to feel inferior was a motivator for me. So I started becoming more assertive. I would just put my hand out there and tell them who I am and what I do.

You can’t let that feeling of inferiority bring you down. You’ve got to let it be a motivator. You have to advocate for yourself; confidence is key for sure.” Unfortunately, things haven’t changed all that much. Messerly attends CIO forums, Nebraska IT leadership forums and meet-ups. “Outside of the ones that are specifically for women, I’m still the only woman at the table,” she says. In response to that demographic, Messerly co-founded Women In Technology in the Heartland (WITH) in February of 2014, and it has grown to more than 850 members.

The group fosters collaborative opportunities for women in technical careers to share and learn with each other while also encouraging IT talent in women through mentoring and other outreach efforts. This year, WITH members are arranging to speak to students in Papillion Public Schools about the broad range of possible IT careers. “We are hoping the word gets out and we will get into some other schools as well,” Messerly adds. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about all the roles in IT.

It’s not just sitting behind a keyboard and not talking to anybody all day,” she says. “I think the solution is getting into the schools—elementary, junior high and high school—and really educating youth on what a career in technology could be.” The goal is to smash the stereotype of the nerdy IT guy with no people skills and erase that age-old stigma. “Maybe it used to be that the IT people were weird, but it’s not like that anymore. It’s very much more of a social IT now, working closely with our partners and understanding business needs. There are so many possibilities.”

WITH members also actively mentor women in tech informally and through the University of Nebraska Omaha’s mentoring program. Messerly has an open door policy at work and makes herself available to mentor colleagues in and outside of technical fields. “I’ve always offered to mentor. I’m very passionate about helping people to reach their full potential.” She credits her success in advancement to several mentors throughout her career. “I had a really excellent mentor at Omnium Worldwide. He helped me understand my strengths and my passions,” she says, crediting him with nudging her toward leadership. “While I liked being a software developer and it was rewarding, my strength is coaching and developing. I’m super passionate about setting a strategy, setting a vision and then leading people and tapping into their strengths.”

Messerly was promoted to director of IT at Omnium Worldwide, which was the pivotal point in her leadership career. After seven years, she was laid off, “but that’s what landed me here,” Messerly says. “Everything happens for a reason and I’m glad that it did.” She started at NFM in 2001 as a software development manager, advanced to IT division manager in 2015 and then incrementally took on more responsibility, moving into the CIO position last October.

“Here at NFM we have leadership programs specifically for women,” she says. “We realize that there aren’t enough women in leadership roles, and we’ve seen a lot more women advancing in more leadership positions in the last five years.”

Leadership in the IT division is now comprised of seven men and seven women. “I just hire the right person for the job, but I do really try to get a good mix of men and women because we just think differently,” she adds. “I’m really proud to say I work for a company that advocates for women.” Flexibility is key to striking family balance while advancing in any career, but can be even more of a challenge for women in the IT world. “We do indeed sometimes work insane hours,” Messerly says. “A lot of the work we do would interrupt business if we do it during business hours, so you really do have to do it at midnight.”

NFM offers flexibility to people who take on those twilight projects to work from home or come in later that next day. “Some people just can’t,” Messerly says. “We always say family first here and we really honor that.” Messerly doesn’t know if that’s the norm in other IT divisions and companies, but in her experience there are enough companies that do offer flexibility that she thinks women struggling with balance should find a new position. “There are a lot of companies that really do offer flexibility,” she says. W

 Omaha Girls Who Code

Gender parity in technology is a growing concern. Girls Who Code (GWC), a national nonprofit, was formed in 2012 with the goal of closing that gap by inspiring and educating young women and equipping them with computing skills necessary to benefit from future opportunities.
The problem is pointedly illustrated by the following statistics on the organization’s website homepage: In 1984, 37 percent of computer science graduates were women. Today that number has dropped to 18 percent.

Projections suggest that 1.4 million jobs in computing-related fields will be available by 2020. U.S. graduates are on track to fill 29 percent of those jobs; women are on track to fill only 3 percent. The Omaha tech community answers back to those alarming statistics by supporting two Omaha Girls Who Code (OGWC) clubs, both charters of the national organization.

One club meets at Do Space; the other at the Abrahams Branch, Omaha Public Library. “It’s very important to the community of women who are already in software development because we’re building a system of support for each other,” says Sandi Barr, co-founder and organizer of the Abraham Branch OGWC club, about the connections being made among students and volunteers. More than 24 women volunteer as instructors, teaching assistants and organizers.

Students who graduate from the advanced classes often come back and serve as assistants for younger groups. “That in itself is a big deal,” Barr says. “I think it gives us a lot of strength in the community.” Fall coding classes are in session at Do Space on Sunday afternoons through December, and the Abraham Branch club offered a four-week introductory class on Saturday mornings in September, with plans to follow up with a 10-week next-level course.

“Girls Who Code classes are generally a long curriculum with a big commitment,” Barr says. “We’re trying to break that up a little bit because we have students who just want to try it, and sometimes it’s hard for kids and parents to make that longer commitment.” The GWC 40-hour, three-level curriculum is designed to teach young women the basic skills needed for writing code and creating projects in a team-building atmosphere.

All OGWC classes are free with all necessary supplies provided and are open to participants in sixth through 12th grades who identify as female. Teachers and assistants promote the idea of confidence and self-respect, as well as respecting others, by modeling those behaviors in their interactions with each other and students. “We really want to promote the idea of sisterhood,” Barr says. “These kids make friends in these clubs.

The idea of making that connection with someone else who is like them makes a big difference in the pressures that girls face in middle school and high school years to not be nerdy, although being nerdy is becoming a little chic these days.” Barr, a senior software engineer at PRX, and several other OGWC Abraham Branch organizers are planning to expand the curriculum to encompass more in-depth instruction for students interested in diving deeper into tech. “We want to provide opportunities for students who are looking for more advanced technical direction in learning to solve real world problems,” she says. To that end they plan to form a local non-profit entitled, “The Mystery Code Society,” which will continue to sponsor an OGWC club. W

Learn more at www.OmahaGirlsWhoCode.com

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