When Lee Jayne started her first programming job, the tech field looked a little different than it does today. The personal computer had not yet made its appearance in the office, IBM System/3 was on its way out, and the playing field for women was vastly different than it is now.
“We didn’t even have maternity leave when I started,” Lee said.
It was 1979 and Lee, now an IBM developer at Briteskies, was entering the workforce after starting a family. She was drawn to the tech field because of the interesting work, good working conditions and fair compensation, among other things.
“I’ve always liked the challenge of solving puzzles,” Lee said. “The use of technology to meet business needs appeared to be a chance for me to have a lot of puzzles to solve, which sounded like an enjoyable way to spend time. Also, at a time when good opportunities in the workforce were very limited for women, a critical need for skilled technical people offered gender-blind opportunities for everyone; a fact that greatly improved my chances of finding employment in my chosen field.”
Lee started her career as a programmer and backup operator for an advertising company that spent a lot of time working with mailing lists. She created and maintained programs written in RPG II that ran on a Cincinnati Milacron, a computer that processed job streams from punched cards and stored data on large, round, removable storage packs.
She eventually progressed from a programmer to a programmer analyst and, eventually, to the Senior Programmer/Analyst position. She dabbled in team leadership and management roles, but always returned to her passion: development. After spending the first 15 to 20 years of her career as an employee for small companies and large corporations, Lee made the move to consulting in order to work on larger development projects.
Throughout her accomplishments and ability to rise through the ranks of the technical field, Lee has seen the harsh reality of inequality between men and women in the workplace.
“Going into it in the first place, [the tech field] was open for women, but it became clear early on that it wasn’t advantageous to have children. This was when the laws started up and [management] had to be very careful about not telling you that you couldn’t do something. But, when it came time to appoint people to leadership roles, if you were a woman in your childbearing years, you were skipped over. They were afraid you would leave them for a bit.”
Nearly 20 years later, Katie Conaway experienced a similar experience while pregnant.
“When I was pregnant, they would talk in front of me about how I ‘wasn’t going to be around’ for parts of a project,” Katie said.
Katie, now an eCommerce Analyst at Briteskies, happened into the tech field in the late 1990s when she worked at an electronic claims clearinghouse and discovered her skills in working with programmers and businesses to solve programming problems.
“I was interested in new technology and how it could help businesses work more efficiently and uncover and leverage new income streams,” Katie said on her fascination with the tech field. “Plus, the work environment is a lot more flexible and the people are usually very intelligent and fun to work with. I also like working on a team and learning about new businesses and projects."
After working for the electronic claims clearinghouse, Katie went on to an online career center. She then went back to school to get her Masters of Science in Information Communications Sciences. After her masters, Katie worked for an IBM business partner that specialized in the “new” field of eCommerce by providing custom eCommerce solutions that leveraged the customer’s AS/400. She eventually stopped working completely with the birth of her first child in 2002.
“I was in the generation where everyone was treated equally, but I decided to stay home with the kids because I’m pretty type-A and knew I couldn’t do both [work and have young children] well.”
Despite being a member of a generation where men and women were raised as equals, Katie has experienced some of the same sexist behaviors that Lee did back in the late 1970s and 1980s.
“We had customers that were blatantly sexist and rude. There were C-level executives that I had to prove myself to simply because I’m a woman,” Katie said of her experiences.
“I found it really hard to be talked down to,” Katie said. However, she had the benefit of interacting with different generations of businessmen. “The comments usually came from older generations of men. The younger men had grown up without those antiquated notions.”
Those generational differences meant that more men in Katie’s offices were aware of unfair treatment.
“I’ve had bosses that were very aware of treating women how they wanted their daughters or wives to be treated. If a customer was disrespectful to me, my boss would pull me aside and let me know that they knew I was competent at the job and to not let those comments get under my skin. They supported me.”
For Lee, that self-aware, politically correct boss or coworker did not necessarily exist.
“If a comment wasn’t directed at me, then I tended to try to ignore it. But if it was directed at me, then the hurricane is coming,” Lee said of her experience with sexist comments in the workplace. “I’ve learned though that some people just can’t be taught.”
For Donna Brown, who entered the tech field around the same time as Lee, the sexist behavior didn’t stop with the offensive or unsavory comments.
“I had a job where I had five people reporting to me. One day they took my role, gave it to a man who didn’t have the same level of responsibility, and laid me off,” Donna said.
Donna has been a longtime iSeries subcontractor with Briteskies. As a single mother, she faced some different struggles than other women in the early days of her tech career.
“I was told that men deserved to be paid more than women because they had families to take care of,” Donna said. “Well, I had a family to take care of, too.”
Shortly after the time that Donna and Lee entered the tech industry, the personal computer became a fixture in offices and homes alike. Previous to this, women such as Donna and Lee had been studying and practicing computer science at growing rates. But the arrival of the PC came with a highly gendered advertising campaign. As this article from NPR illustrates, PCs were marketed towards boys and, at the same time, women began dropping out of computer science courses and careers.
For many young women entering the workforce today, these accounts of sexism in technology seem almost unbelievable.
Michelle Kowalski is the UI/UX designer for Briteskies, a position she took on in 2013. She has worked in multiple roles in design firms before, but this is her first foray into the tech world. As a newcomer to the tech field, she hasn’t experienced the harsh differences in treatment between men and women at work that affected the women that came before her. That’s not to say that she hasn’t had any experience with gender-related struggles, however.
“I obviously don’t have to jump over so many hurdles, but every day I have to remind myself to be more confident. If there were a man in my position, how would he react? I need to react appropriately, not appropriately for a woman,” Michelle said on the current climate for women in technology, which is still a male-dominated field.
While the blatant sexism may no longer abound, there is still a push for women and girls to become interested in the STEM fields. We are still recovering from the aforementioned drop of women in computer science that took place in the mid-1980s. This article from Tech Republic highlights the gap between men and women in various aspects of the tech industry.
For Anne Rodriguez, the eCommerce Manager at InHouz.com, this gap is effectively highlighted by a photo essay that makes a poignant statement through a humorous medium: men’s restroom lines at tech conferences.
“A year ago I saw a twitpic from someone attending a tech conference where the line for the men’s room was 50+ deep and there was no wait for the women’s room,” Anne said. “But at an SEO conference I attended earlier this month, I saw just the opposite. As women find their niche(s) in the industry, the opportunities and growth will come.”
Anne started her experience in the tech field in 2004 as a Marketing Manager. One of her first projects was the creation of a B2C/B2B eCommerce site for Valspar. When she added supply chain management to her responsibilities in 2005, she took a deeper dive into systems such as Oracle and AS/400.
She was drawn to the tech field by what she refers to as, “the evolution of it all.”
“It’s something that is never the same today as it will be tomorrow. It’s a chase, a never-ending chess game, and you’re constantly trying to stay a step or two ahead.”
As Anne has worked her way up in the tech industry, she has seen progress being made for women in the field, which she attributes to those organizations that are striving to educate young girls, a stark contrast to the tech marketing of the 1980s.
“I firmly believe in the progress being made by organizations and entrepreneurs who are reaching out to the younger generations in hopes of getting them interested early on. Programs like Girls Who Code, Rails Girls and Vidcode are focused on getting females into programming in ways that appeal to them. These activities help build a great foundation for creating a lifelong interest in the field.”
Those organizations are targeting girls in the same age range as Katie’s daughters. Katie left work in 2002 to raise her two girls, but the return to the workforce this past spring was a welcome one.
“Now that I’m back in the workforce, I feel more like myself. Plus it’s good for my kids because now they have to be more independent.”
Despite the progress that has been made for women in the workforce and technical field, Lee has found that her experiences early in her career still affect her today.
“Even today I don’t openly share about my family automatically. I hear other people do that and realize that I don’t because it just wasn’t the norm when I was starting. No one would ever say anything specifically, but when you were passed up for an assignment even when you were doing better work than the person who got it, you knew it was because you had kids.”
Lee has experienced the changes in the tech industry first hand as well as the work-life balance that has accompanied them.
“My husband wouldn’t even wash dishes when I entered the workforce. But over the years, my husband and I have taken turns staying home with the kids based on who wanted to spend more time with the family or who had the better job. My house used to be perfect. These days it looks like a bomb hit it 9 times out of 10, but I’m a happier person.”
Now that she is more established in her career, Lee is prepared to pass the torch to the younger workforce. It’s time, she says, to let someone else “fight the fight.”
“It can be hard because a lot of really young women are coming into the workplace and don’t understand where we came from. Change is slow, so my biggest thing is that women today have to fight, fight, fight to not give up the changes we’ve fought for.”
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