part 5: women powering technology

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The fifth installment of our Women Powering Technology series features Helen Drinan, President of Simmons College, a Boston-based, private women's college established in 1899. She is the eighth President of Simmons College and the former Chair of the Simmons College Board of Trustees. Previously, Drinan was Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Caritas Christi Health Care. She also served as President and CEO of the Society of Human Resources Management and as Executive Vice President of Human Resources for BankBoston. In 2001, she was named a Fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources, and in 2007 she received the John D. Erdlen Five Star Award — the highest award given annually by the Northeast Human Resource Association. -Kimberly Fahey, Vice President, Global Client Solutions at Randstadimage009.jpg


KF:) In a 2012 Boston Globe column, you addressed the fact that although women account for more than half of entry-level professionals in the largest American industrial corporations, they represent just 3 percent of Fortune500 CEOs, and less than 15 percent of corporate executives at top companies worldwide. As a two-time graduate and president of Simmons College, you wrote this about women's colleges: "I have no doubt that these educational outlets continue to play a vital role in educating and preparing women for leadership positions, helping our nation tap into an enormous segment of underutilized talent." One of the advantages of a women's college is that it's an environment that encourages women to take risks during the course of their careers, without fear of failure. Failure, you wrote, can be a necessary part of the path to leadership. What advice can you give to women hoping to enter the challenging and male-dominated tech world? How do you approach failure and utilize it in order to enhance your career and ascend to leadership positions?

HD:) With the rapid evolution of technology, one thing that’s become clear is that people of any age can get into the IT field. If you have an inclination at all, you should cultivate it. Join online groups, blog, foster your interest – no matter how modest you think it is. Women also need to start to get real, hands-on experience to match their interests. Take a coding class during the summer that challenges you. Organizations like Girls Who Code are working to equip young women with the tech tools they need to succeed. You need to first identify your interests, then find the tools to support it. The industry is changing when it comes to women and technology. There are numerous organizations popping up, and Google and other companies are investing in women in technology. You need to recognize that there is support and tap into it. You also need to find people who will encourage and support you. Your mother, your aunt, a neighbor – whoever it is, find someone that believes in you and will tell you, “You can do this.”  Girls are often left to their own devices when it comes to figuring out what they’re good at. Having someone who believes in you and who can help to articulate your strengths is invaluable. Men are taking ideas and turning them into innovative products that tech companies want to buy. Women need to take the same risks, too. The problem is women often think that if their idea is not perfect, it’s not good. Instead, women need to feel confident enough to come up with their own ideas and stop fearing failure. I grew up at a time when failure was anathema.  Avoidance of failure means to fail at taking any type of risk. Although it’s difficult for women to take risks – we cannot learn from the sidelines. The earlier you fail the better. We often learn more from failure than success.  In the end, good is often better than perfect. Failure is okay as long as you learn from it and build toward future success. Women need to learn to self-talk through it. What did I learn? How can I learn from this in the future? It’s also important to recognize that there are different types of failure. Is this a bump in the road or something with serious, long-term impact? Is this something I could have prevented? What is the risk/return trade off?
 
KF) "We will never reach our full potential as a country, if we do not use 100 percent of our talent. Men, we need your help to make this happen." You made that powerful statement in a 2013 Huffington Post column. How can this translate to the tech industry? According to a recent article from the National Center for Women and Information Technology, men can be instrumental in promoting gender diversity in the IT field, including being better listeners to their female counterparts when it comes to their unique pressures and work experiences, increasing the numbers of visible female leaders and "correcting micro-inequities or instances of unconscious bias" in the workplace. What are some other ways men can be better advocates and allies for women in the tech field?
 
HD) The idea of men supporting women in tech is imperative. It’s important that men across the IT culture educate themselves about why women have difficulties succeeding. As a nation, we must be strategic in order to take advantage of the talent we already have. It’s hard enough for the U.S. to compete on a global stage, so we certainly can’t leave half of our talent untapped. The best way for men to be allies is to model decent behavior. From another perspective, men also need to confront indecent behavior. When bad behavior occurs in the workplace, men must call it out.
 
KF) You shared an interesting personal story with the Huffington Post in 2012. You worked with a male leader who was emotionally and verbally abusive. You met with your department head, explained the situation and requested an investigation. You were given two choices: accept a severance package or end the matter without further conversation. You chose the latter. A year later, you were offered a major promotion, and during the next several years, you continued up the corporate ladder, eventually becoming the first woman appointed to the Senior Management Committee in the history of your company. That's an important lesson for many working women today, especially females working in the IT field. What advice can you give to women working in IT who might face similar situations? What's the importance of letting your voice be heard in the workplace and persevering through tough situations?
 
HD:) When you are faced with a difficult, institutional work problem, be sure you really value the situation you are in enough to fight for it. If it’s not worth it, move on. You cannot spend your life fighting non-career battles. You cannot be an advocate for yourself or others in the negative. If you are in the early stage of your career and see a toxic environment around you, ask yourself – do I want to be here? Is this a career firm? Be strategic about taking something on. It’s serious when you challenge an organization about its culture. If it’s not worth it, make a plan to move on. If you decide to challenge the culture, make sure you know the scope of your situation. Document everything – gather notes that establish a pattern of behavior that is egregious. Be sure you are confident of your facts. If you have someone within the company you can trust – whether in HR or a colleague – test your case with them to get feedback. Once you are sure of your situation – look in the mirror. Are you prepared to do this? This could be a career-defining – or ending – move. You have to be able to say this is worth it to you professionally and personally. You must be prepared and move forward with a clear sense of self. People admire courage – but they don’t necessarily hire courage. If you have your facts straight, you are protected against retaliation in the workplace. Use that protection if you can stick it out until you find your next opportunity. Discrimination is more subtle the more you move up the career ladder. As we prepare young women to be realists, we must engage men. We must ask them – how long must women engage in this use of our energy and time? This is preventing us from advancing. Let’s end this – it’s not what we’ve prepared our girls to do. To use an analogy of traditionally male concepts (competitive sports or war), you must be thoroughly prepared to go against formidable competitors – but you must also be on a level playing field. Competition is good for women, but right now it’s unbalanced. We must change that. Once you have credibility based on contributions to the workplace, then you have personal currency in the work environment. You need to earn credibility before you start trying to use your voice. I was head of HR for a large corporation. My point of view was - how do we take advantage of our largest investment - our workforce? You need to make contributions that connect back to what the business is trying to do. What are the tangible results? When you do this, then your voice can be heard at higher levels.
 
KF) At Simmons College, there are several technology initiatives, such as the GSLIS Technology Group, which encourages students to create, manage and produce information, not just consume it. Some projects include a podcasting service, usability lab and digital curriculum lab. Have you seen interest in tech degrees increase or decrease in recent years? Statistics show that over the past 25 years, the proportion of females earning tech degrees has steadily dropped from 37 percent in 1985 to 18 percent in 2009. How will this lack of females in the education pipeline affect the technology industry overall? What steps can educational institutions take to increase interest in tech-related degrees among female students?
 
HD) There is an alarming decline in the STEM strengths of our nation. At Simmons College, we, of course, support individual choice. But we also know that students self-select according to interest. The idea that a course is mandatory, whether students like it or not, helps to advance education for subjects which students think they dislike. For example, when our country needed to develop more citizens who could speak Russian and Chinese, tax payer dollars supported a program that allowed students to learn these languages. This sometimes meant that students needed to go to other schools for these classes. If we want the outcomes to be different, we must think about the model differently. Major tech companies must play a role in this as well. We must set up programs to compete at the highest level. This makes people reach to the highest levels – they do things they did not think they could do. For example, we have a professor who is using a flipped curriculum in chemistry – students work together to solve problems in class, rather than in isolation at home. This creates a powerful way for students to inspire and encourage each other – changing “I can’t do this” to “I can do this.” Engaging alumni is also important. Educators should be sure that students hear the stories of women who have succeeded in STEM fields, so that they can understand the challenges early on. Inviting alumni who have built successful careers based on STEM areas to share their stories is an important way to inspire students through real-life examples.
 
KF) You addressed the lack of women in STEM fields in the Huffington Post in 2012. "While girls have strong career aspirations, they continue to make choices based on gendered messages and often ignore emerging (and highly paid) fields such as STEM," you wrote. In fact, a study of more 1,600 middle school students by Simmons College and the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts found that 32% of girls (vs. 10% of boys) don't even consider STEM as an option. What are some practical ways parents and teachers can encourage young girls to get interested in STEM and realize, as you noted, "science is for girls?”
 
HD) At Simmons, over the past few years we have become convinced that the arc of life for every female person starts as a little girl. Parents need to recognize this if they are hoping their child has every opportunity they want or could have. In Boston, we have Science Club for Girls –  it’s play-based, but girls experience science. MIT has the only girls’ rocket development program in the country. Parents must look for ways to open doors for girls. They must see possibilities their daughters might not ordinarily be exposed to. Ultimately, we all need to think of new ways to open doors for girls and to help them find new ways in.