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A Woman in a Man’s World: Women in Tech

Winthrop University graduate Michelle Rojas has always had a love for technology.  Interacting with it like many other millennials do, Rojas enjoys her laptop, social media and the mobile apps on her cell phone. 

 

Although Rojas’ interest in technology extends beyond what is readily provided for her consumption, she is drawn to the creation of those technologies—so much so that Rojas pursued it as a career.

“I started as an intern at an Internet marketing agency and kind of just moved my way up from specialist to now manager,” Rojas said.

Rojas goes to work every day as a campaign manager where she and her team provide services in SEO, email marketing and pay-per-click campaigns. 

While she is a team member at work, she is not blind to the fact that she is one of the few female team members in her occupation. 

According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology, women hold 26 percent of the 3,816,00 computing related jobs in 2013.  Just 5 percent of those women were Asian, 3 percent African American and 2 percent were Hispanic. Rojas is one of these women.

Many women, companies and organizations have become aware of the statistics showing the lack of women in technology, and how navigating within a predominantly male-dominated industry comes with some difficulties.

“There are definitely complex barriers that discourage women and minorities from entering technology,” said user experience designer and Winthrop University graduate Sarah Auvil.  “In regards to women there seems to be a pervasive stigma that they must not know as much about technical areas as their male counterparts.”

According to Rojas, this idea of putting women in softer roles in the workplace because “they think that women can’t handle it,” can be discouraging and create barriers for women pursuing a career in tech or who are currently in it.

Associate professor of computer science at Winthrop University Chlotia Garrison, Ph.D., believes that barriers for women in this field still exist and begins at an early age.

“Unfortunately there are barriers and it starts young,” Garrison said.  “By the time [women] get to college they’ve seen what a lawyer does on TV or what have you, and a lot of them don’t have an understanding of what computer science is and what it involves.”

Rojas was fortunate enough to gain exposure to the technology field at an early age.

Prior to moving to Greenville, South Carolina, while in high school Rojas lived in New Jersey. Her father encouraged her to apply to a community college program during the summer, which included free math and science courses. 

“That was the first time I had done any kind of programing,” Rojas said. “It was C++, a little bit of Javascript and an intro to HTML course.”

HTML was the language that had stuck out to Rojas the most.

“When I did HTML that’s when I said to myself ‘this is awesome.’ That was when the internet really became big, AOL was like the thing, and so being able to create a webpage was awesome because that’s what everyone was talking about, the Internet,” Rojas said.

The program spurred Rojas into what would later become her career field.  According to Rojas, that was the moment when she knew what she wanted to do.

“I realized then that I wanted to be able to do this.  I want to be able to create a whole website.  After that class I started teaching myself a little bit more about HTML.” 

According to Garrison, multiple organizations are pushing to try to increase the amount of women in technology fields by creating programs similar to what Rojas attended.

“Part of that is just getting out the knowledge of what computer science is by getting it into lower and lower grades,” she said.  “There are summer camps that do that.  There is also something called ‘An Hour of Code’ that will happen in December and the idea is to try and get millions of people to try an hour of code to see what it is.”

Garrison believes that exposing women to the possibilities in the technology field at a young age, like Rojas, has the potential to make a lifelong impact and tip the scale in the disparity between men and women in this industry.

Once in the industry Rojas, like other women in male-dominated fields, has encountered barriers and a disparity of treatment between herself and her male co-workers such as being talked to in a patronizing or undermining tone. 

Crystal Starks, a user experience designer and the Charlotte chapter leader for Girl Develop It, is one of two women in her team of 15.  She said that sometimes the women are criticized about their work more openly then the men who are critiqued.

“It’s like they are ‘teaching’ [women] something all of the time,” Starks said. 

Rojas, however, believes that many of these instances are subconscious and her co-workers don’t realize their actions.

“Sometimes at the office I don’t think that they intentionally do things like that, but they tend to assume that the women will take on the stereotypical roles,” she said. “Like if lunch was brought in then the women will be the ones to clean it up. That’s changed now since we have said something about it, but things like that they don’t even think about.”

At the start of Rojas’ managerial position she received a call from a disgruntled client.  The client took her frustrations out on Rojas, and while she remained professional, afterward the interaction took an emotional toll.

“I closed the door and cried in my office and my female manager said to me ‘you can’t react like that because then they are going to think that you can’t handle it,’” Rojas said.

It was said that women who outwardly display “masculine skills, such as assertiveness and independence,” perform better in Michael Casey’s article published in August, “When Competing in a Male-Dominated Field Women Should ‘Man Up,’” which was featured on Fortune Magazine’s website.

According to Rojas, the idea pressures women to be something they are not.

“I shouldn’t feel punished or I shouldn’t feel bad for being who I am, and if I so happen to have an emotional response to something so be it.  It shouldn’t be seen as a weakness,” Rojas said.

While some women are encouraged to act more like men in the work place in order to succeed their capabilities are at the same time challenged and seen to not be on par with those of their male co-workers. Her capabilities and knowledge are sometimes challenged when her supervisor discusses subjects that are more technical, she expresses that he tries to correct her about something she already knows about.

“I’ve been doing this for years.  I know how it works,” Rojas said.

Common to many male dominated industries, the female presence is also frequently passed over, and sometimes leave women out all together.

The stories of 716 women who had left the technology field for various reasons had been collected in Kieran Snyder’s article “Why Women Leave Tech: It’s the Culture, Not because ‘Math is Hard,’” which was featured on Fortune Magazine’s website in October.  All of the women agreed that it wasn’t due to issues related with science education.  According to Synder, “it’s the culture, not because ‘math is hard.’”

The ways in which that culture is perpetuated within society contributes to the lack of women in this industry.

For instance, Google’s diversity webpage said that the company has recognized that a diverse workplace is better for society and that “having a diversity of perspectives leads to better decision-making, more relevant products and makes work a whole lot more interesting.”

“Women are half the world’s population.  We’ve got to increase their participation in computer science and keep women at Google on the path to leadership,” Google’s diversity webpage said.

To begin this process Google has partnered with other companies and launched initiatives of its own.

Google’s initiative to curb the gender disparity by getting girls interested in coding and computer science was discussed in “No Really. How Do We Get Girls to Code,” an article published in June by reporter Hayley Tsukayama of The Washington Post. They’ve also recently launched “Made With Code,” which encourages teen girls to do projects that include creating animated gifs, composing digital soundtracks and 3-D printed bracelets in their visual programming editor. 

Like Google, many companies have begun to realize the importance of having diversity in the workplace and have begun initiating different ways in which to encourage women to pursue tech.

Organizations like Girl Develop It help to provide affordable and accessible programs to women.  As the chapter leader for Charlotte, Starks has been able to encourage women in her community to pursue and continue interests in the technology field.

“It has been such a blessing.  I have helped women change their careers and keep their careers,” Starks said.

Garrison believes that efforts like this assist in increasing the amount of women in the field, and with more women in tech the barriers, women can begin to be broken down.

“There are some women that still experience the idea that some might not be as good.  The more women that are in the field the more that would expel that,” Garrison said.

Rojas has also taken efforts to spread interest technology to other women and hopefully encourage them to also enjoy the field that she loves.

“I ended up teaching SEO at Geek Girl Tech Con and Girl Develop It this year,” Rojas said.  “I enjoy knowing that someone gained value out of that and is going to apply it in their lives. It’s cool knowing that you had some kind of impact on their lives at that point in time.”

Her time in the industry has allowed Rojas to realize that her experiences can be beneficial and help other women as well.

“I think the most important thing, and I’m still kind of dealing with this, is do not be afraid of failing,” Rojas said.  “I think our generation is so hung up on failure that they are afraid to try new things and explore. It’s also all about perspective. You shouldn’t have the mindset that being a minority or a female will hold you back.  I work to do the best that I can do while knowing that I’m just as capable as everyone else.”

 

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