Women are still a minority in the tech field — but they should use that to their advantage, said Teresa Carlson, Amazon Web Services vice president of worldwide public sector.
“The opportunity is vast for women in tech,” Carlson said Monday at a panel on women in technology, “So define what you want to do, and do it.”
Women made up 57 percent of America’s workforce in 2015, but only held 25 percent of computing jobs, according to a National Center for Women & Information Technology report released in March. To improve the numbers, women need to speak up for themselves and advocate for others, several female leaders in technology said at the panel, part of the 2016 Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit.
Panelists from the public and private sectors told stories about their experiences in the industry, and discussed ways to improve the low numbers of women in tech.
For one, women who are interested in leadership positions need to be better about asking for mentorship, Department of Veterans Affairs CIO LaVerne Council said. In the past, she said, the people who have asked her for mentorship were mostly men.
“The people that wouldn’t ask were the women,” Council said. “They didn’t want to be asking anyone anything because they don’t want to be seen as needy.”
Women need to stop caring about what people will think of them when they speak up and ask for something, she said.
“You have to ask, it’s OK. You have to network, it’s OK,” Council said. “If it’s the right thing, you need to just do it.”
Helen Sun, senior vice president of Motorola Solutions, also said people in the workplace need to be aware of their own unconscious biases toward women as leaders. If a female leader is seen as strong or outspoken, too often she is considered “aggressive,” Sun said. But on the flip side, if she is laid back or soft-spoken, she doesn’t have “executive presence.”
At Motorola, the HR department is starting a training program to have a conversation about the issue.
“Those are things I think we will continue to battle,” Sun said. “But it’s important for female leaders to bring awareness of this type of unconscious bias as it happens in the workplace and fight for what you believe in.”
But getting women in technology starts early, the panelists noted — long before women get to college and chose a major. They discussed video games as one way to spark an early interest in programming and other technology-driven careers.
Sun said she started thinking about the influence of video games on girls when talking to her son about the game he was playing. She asked him if he often saw girl gamers — he said, “Not really.”
After doing some research, Sun said she discovered that while there are many female gamers, they are not as vocal online.
A 2016 report from the Entertainment Software Association claims 41 percent of gamers are female.
“Maybe we should sponsor a girl video game team or something of that nature,” Sun said.
Girls need role models, said panelist Beth Bergsmark, deputy CIO of Georgetown University.
“If you are a woman in tech … be out there and let them see you,” Bergsmark said. “Because they need to see themselves in that role.”