Women in IT thank moms for encouragement

Three share how their mothers helped them tackle a male-dominated field

Women in technology say they owe their success to their mothers who refused to reinforce the misguided notion that boys are good at math and science, while girls should focus on arts and literature.

Not just professional athletes and actors thank their mothers for helping them succeed. Women in IT also credit their moms for making them realize they could conquer any career -- even the male-dominated high-tech industry.

"With respect to my career, when I got into computer science there were no women in the program, so she told me to learn to live in a man's world, to always read the headlines -- on the financial pages, sports pages and general news -- and she told me not to get emotional," says Priscilla Milam (above), an IT and service manager for a large gas and power company in Texas. "Still, IT in general is a man's world, and by keeping up with the news and sports, when the pre/post meetings end up in discussions around whether the Astros won or lost or who the Texans drafted, I can participate; and suddenly they see me as part of the group and not an outsider."

According to research released this year by Catalyst, a research firm that advocates breaking barriers for women in technology, the percentage of women holding computing and mathematics occupations has declined since 2000, when women held 30% of these jobs. In 2006, 27% of such positions were occupied by women. The Information Technology Association of America separately reported that "the proportion of women in technology positions in the U.S. has declined from 41% in 1996 to 32% in 2004."

Catalyst says although companies such as HP, IBM, Pitney-Bowes and Texas Instruments work to bring women in-house, many industry watchers struggle to find ways to attract women to high-tech positions.

"Given the increased demand for labor in the technology industry and a nonexistent growth rate in the share of computing jobs held by women, practitioners, journalists and scholars have found themselves asking once again how to entice women into the high-tech industry," a Catalyst report reads.

Milam and other successful women holding high-tech positions say a passion for technology begins early in life and a few encouraging words from their mothers helped them realize they could overcome the challenges inherent in taking on an industry dominated by men. They learned early that just because IT seemed to be a boys' club, it didn't mean that they couldn't make a career in technology accessible for them and future generations of women.

"There wasn't any specific advice my mother gave me, but she instilled in me the belief that there wasn't anything I couldn't do, just because it might be considered a man's job," says Debbie Joy, lead solution architect for CSC in Phoenix. "She told me I was destined to have a career in computers."

Like Milam, Joy realized that to succeed in IT she had to put gender aside at work and learn to regard her colleagues as peers, and ultimately they would do the same.

"I have never felt competitive toward the men I work with and have usually gotten along more as 'one of the guys' -- without losing my femininity," Joy says. "I have found that it was much easier to be accepted and to become part of a team when the majority of the team didn’t have to change the way they acted because I happened to be with them. By expecting to be treated equally, I find that I usually have been treated equally."

Klara Jelinkova, director of computing systems at Duke University in Durham, N.C., followed her mother's advice and example as a pioneer in the computing industry.

"My mother told me to take programming classes rather than typing classes in high school. She was one of the early IT women pioneers back in the 1960s," Jelinkova says. "Back then, it was all behind the Iron Curtain and just being a woman in IT was quite an accomplishment; she was in the first class graduating from Charles University [in Prague] with a degree in cybernetics."

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