The founding members of OSU’s Women in IT group were named the winners of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women Community Builder Award. From left – Polly Harrell, Kristina Case, OSU President Dr. Jayathi Murthy, Dr. Weiwei Zhang, Marjorie McLagan & Emily Longman. Not pictured: Chrysanthemum Hayes

Breaking barriers for women in IT

By Rebekah Pike

“I’ve always been interested in systems thinking.”

“I really like having facts and doing assessment and analysis.”

“I fell into it accidentally because of where my passion was.”

These are three different responses that members of OSU’s Women in IT team gave when asked how they found their way into the tech world. While all three of these women have found success and career opportunities at OSU, it hasn’t always been an easy path. And the success they have found is especially remarkable when you consider one factor: their gender. Statistically speaking, women are outnumbered nearly three to one by their male peers in the tech industry and are much less likely to achieve management or leadership roles. In fact, the odds that a woman will even attempt to enter the field are low – as of 2021, only 18% of computer science undergraduate degrees were earned by women.

If you’re only looking at the numbers and trends, the future for women in IT looks bleak. That’s the future that OSU’s Women in IT team is hoping to change.

It’s not just me

In the spring of 2022, the University Information and Technology Executive Team led by Chief Information Officer Andrea Ballinger nominated six women from OSU to attend a five-week EDUCAUSE series for central IT workers called Women Advance Technology. The UIT Executive Team made their recommendation as part of a broader initiative called the IT Workforce Development Plan, designed to develop and support IT staff at OSU. Throughout the series, the cohort had a chance to reflect on the challenges, obstacles and opportunities they had encountered in their careers.

As the group continued to meet and talk after completing the EDUCAUSE series, they saw an opportunity to create a community of support and provide more resources for women working in IT roles at OSU. Because as they compared notes and shared their experiences, they realized that the barriers they’d encountered weren’t unique. It wasn’t “just me.” Other women were having parallel experiences, leading to self-doubt, burnout, retention issues and additional stress at work.

Finding their way to IT

All three of the women I spoke to for this story did not initially see a place for themselves in the IT world. They didn’t go straight from high school to earning a computer science degree to landing an entry-level IT job. It was more of a winding path with multiple learning experiences along the way.

That was very much true for UIT Director of Academic Technologies Kristina Case. She initially entered OSU as a business major before switching gears to a liberal studies degree with a multimedia focus. After graduating, she worked in a variety of media roles before becoming director of video and internet operations with the Pac-12 Conference (Pac-10 at the time), which required a move to California.

Working in college athletics, she was almost always the only woman in the room. But Case said this wasn’t an unusual situation for her.

“The video world, it’s very male dominated. So, I didn’t feel out of place,” she said.  

Case said her experience with the Pac-12 was largely positive. But her position required 90-hour work weeks, which weren’t compatible with starting a family. Eventually, she found her way back to OSU, working her way up from coordinator of media services to director of academic technologies.

Case said she participated in conversations at OSU about women in IT several years ago – right in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement. Then-Interim Chief Information Officer Jon Dolan hosted a listening session on the topic. Case said it was an opportunity to start a meaningful dialogue about “the feelings that you feel internally, but you never verbalize.”

While she believes that the event was an important starting point, one thing about it gave her pause.

“The odd thing was that it was hosted and led by a man,” she said. Case was quick to acknowledge Dolan’s efforts to draw awareness to the problem and appreciates his initiative. What bothered her was that none of the women working in IT had felt empowered to take that first step and advocate for themselves and each other.

“‘Why was there not a woman with the power to start something like that?’” she recalled thinking. “It was great that he was an ally and was attempting to do this, it was just … you start to kind of look and you’re like, “Wait a minute – this is not right.” 

Building a resilient, grassroots community for women

The Division of Finance and Administration IT Director of Business Architecture Polly Harrell also found her way into IT through a non-traditional path. One of her previous jobs was working as a business license specialist for a city government.

“I actually ran an IT project without knowing,” she said. “It was part of like, ‘I want to make this process better. It’s super clunky. We can make it better – more efficient. And I shouldn’t have to do this manual, clicky work.’”

That drive to streamline processes and leverage technology to improve outcomes eventually led to her current role in business architecture, a field that specializes in process mapping and analyzing data to improve business decisions. The unit that Harrell currently leads alongside three other directors is unusual in its gender representation. Out of 18 positions within DFA IT, 30% are currently held by women including 50% of the leadership roles. As a relatively new unit on campus, DFA IT leadership is striving to integrate diversity and inclusion into all facets of recruiting, retention and employee recognition.  

Harrell said that she envisions the Women in IT group as a supportive community where women can share their experiences and learn to advocate for themselves and each other in a field where it has been difficult to make inroads. She also hopes to help women advance their careers and provide a place where they can ask for feedback and position themselves for promotions.

Rather than waiting for someone more senior to lead the effort, the original group of EDUCAUSE attendees decided to organize the group themselves with a bottom-up structure that Harrell said is completely by design. The goal is to build a resilient, self-sustaining organization that can support OSU students and staff for years to come. 

“I think it was clear to us – we need this to be a grassroots effort, we need to take ownership and feel empowered to do this for ourselves,” Harrell said.

Getting more girls and young women into tech

Emily Longman, Lead Security Analyst at the Security Operations Center, said she never saw herself choosing a tech career growing up. IT, she said, was what her dad did. However, her father’s career did impact how she interacted with technology as a child.

“I grew up using a Linux desktop, which I realize now meeting everyone else in the world, that’s weird,” she laughed.

She initially chose to study another STEM field– microbiology. But as she entered her junior year at OSU, she realized that her degree choice wasn’t a great fit. After taking a gap year and experimenting with coding, she reentered college as a computer science major and started working in OSU’s Security Operations Center after graduating.

“I’ve been here in the SOC part and full time for eight years and I have never had another woman in the SOC,” she said. “And I run all our student hiring. We try really hard to recruit folks. The program is getting bigger, so there’s more interest and there’s more students applying now across OSU, so we are seeing more female applicants. We’ve just yet to find one who is the right fit. And I’m ready for that.”

Longman believes that robust K-12 outreach programs are key to boosting the number of women entering the IT field.

“I’m really passionate about doing K-12 outreach … cybersecurity camps,” she said. “Volunteering at those and being like, ‘Hey! Security is cool! You get to stop hackers and you get to kinda be a hacker. It’s awesome!’”

Longman said that OSU has made progress in engaging K-12 students and offers a summer Cyber Camp for high schoolers, but with limited student registrations per camp, there are still opportunities for growth. OSU is offering Cyber Camp during summer 2023 free of charge, which reduces barriers for students.

If more women enter IT – will they stay?

Harrell and Longman both expressed concern about the retention rate of women in technical roles. Longman said that the initial EDUCAUSE cohort had discussed their frustration with being expected to take on administrative tasks that their male peers didn’t volunteer for. All three women I spoke to mentioned notetaking during meetings as one example of a task they were repeatedly assigned. Another shared experience was having their ideas or proposals ignored or overlooked only to gain acceptance once a male colleague suggested the same thing. Case said she had personally watched this dynamic play out in meetings.

Longman worries that burnout is driving some women out of the IT field.

“That concerns me and I don’t know the answers, but it seems like the burnout rates of women in IT are actually higher than men,” she said. “Maybe because it’s just a smaller sample size, but that’s concerning. Is it the culture? What is it?”

The available research supports Longman’s hypothesis. A 2019 report from Accenture and Girls Who Code found that half of young women who enter tech careers drop out by age 35. When researchers asked the survey respondents why they planned to leave their jobs, the number one reason cited was poor company culture. Other reasons included dissatisfaction with the job and a lack of diversity.

Harrell related a story where she recently attended an OSU mentorship program, which was intended to train future IT leadership. As the meeting began, she noticed that she was the only woman in the room along with 13 men.

“And I’m like, ‘Well, this isn’t a hopeful sight, if I’m the only female here … getting the tools and the skills needed to be a manager,’” she said. “And then another female colleague showed up and I felt this immediate …” she paused and took a deep breath. “Like almost tension relief. And I don’t think male counterparts realize that that’s a thing.”

Connecting employees, student workers and allies

Creating a sense of belonging and community is one way that the Women in IT group hopes to improve retention rates and combat the burnout problem. They plan to open the group to all female-identifying employees working in IT as well as student workers and non-female allies. Connecting women at the undergraduate level to a strong support network is one way to ensure that female students feel they belong in the IT field and provide opportunities for mentorship.

So far, community response to the group has been positive. The Women in IT Teams channel (open to IT employees of any gender) has more than 400 members. The founding members of the group were recently recognized by the President’s Commission on the Status of Women as winners of the Community Builder Award. PCOSW hosts the annual Breaking Barriers awards banquet to honor individuals and groups who have worked to advance gender equity at OSU.

“It was cool to see that the community cares that much about what we are doing and that OSU really does care about fostering a community of belonging and diversity and inclusion and that’s not just something on a mission statement,” Longman said. “It’s something we are actually doing.”

Rebekah Pike is a communication specialist with the Division of Finance & Administration’s IT unit. She works alongside stakeholders across the university to highlight the collaborative partnerships that support campus operations and further the mission of OSU.

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