WANTED: More girls in the classroom; more women in the workforce.
Kimberly Eckenrode compares getting young women interested in the tech field to the classic school science fair. “People will gravitate to whoever’s doing a really cool experiment,” the instructor in a Coding Boot Camp theorized. “So we need to find something ‘shiny’ to attract them, to show them it’s not just being cooped up in a cubicle.”
It’s been 50 years since we heard women roar, in a voice too big to ignore, as they took back their share of a male-dominated world. Since then women have taken their place, and often the helm, in almost every profession. But they haven’t been as eager to go into the “tech” field, and the New Hampshire Tech Alliance is remedying that with a three-pronged approach.
Julie Demers, executive director of the New Hampshire Tech Alliance, said the focus on females began a few years ago. “A number of our volunteers recognized the need to see more women in the STEM fields,” she said, adding, “it’s a perpetual problem.”
While the women’s movement has been opening doors and professions since the 1970s, the number of women entering science, tech, math or engineering-based professions has lagged behind other breakthroughs.
Three major initiatives
The Alliance recognized the need and has answered it with three major initiatives, according to Demers.
The first is the Women in Tech Power Breakfast, where tech professionals can convene for networking and support. A speaker coaches them on various aspects of success.
The second is an annual luncheon. Again, there is networking, but also acknowledgement of a Tech Professional, Tech Educator and Tech Student of the Year. “It follows the whole cycle,” Demers explained.
The third program is the Tech Women Ambassadors Week, when women in the professions fan out to partner up with and encourage a high school student interested in a STEM field. While the event was virtual last year, Demers looked back to 2019, when 22 schools and 1,000 students participated.
“The intent,” she said, “is to increase the talent pipelines and give young woman a strong community to be a part of.”
While women have found their way into other fields, from the barracks to the boardroom, tech careers remain elusive. “Women are still less than 20 percent of the workforce in both computer science and computer programming,” she said. “It’s gradually getting better.”
She added, “When I talk to students, they often say they’re one of two or three girls in the class.” It’s discouraging for a young woman, she mused, “to look around and not see anyone who looks like you.”
The unbalance is taking longer than other fields to self-correct, she said, pointing out, “It has nothing to do with women’s skill.”
Demers would also like to see more women in tech leadership positions.
But there is success, she added, pointing out, “We shave off a little bit, a year at a time.”
Fewer women recruits
While Shannon Herrmann doesn’t have a tech background, she’s learned a lot in her position as Senior Recruiting Manager for the Alexander Technology Group. She works with local companies to “find them the tech talent they need,” and with 10 years in, she confirms that there aren’t enough female programmers or other IT professionals.
“There are absolutely fewer women for us to recruit,” Herrmann said.
While recruiting is her day gig, she also does a form of IT in her off hours as co-chair of the TechWomen|TechGirls program. “It is hard, and we’ve been talking about it a long time,” Herrmann observed.
While elementary-age girls often show interest in computers and programming, the enthusiasm seems to drop off around middle school, and peter out completely by high school. It’s ironic, Herrmann mused, because more girls than boys are enrolling in college.
Part of the discrepancy may be the way tech presents itself, Herrmann added. The stereotype of a programmer is a person isolated in a cubicle, writing code, and not talking to anyone.Herrmann said the Alliance is committed to providing another view. “We are taking a proactive approach.”
While the Tech Women Ambassadors Week has taken a hit due to COVID, the Alliance has filled that gap with a Pathways To Tech program. The live broadcast features tech professionals talking about their careers, and taking questions from young women watching remotely. The program is on Cloudcast, so girls can access it later, she said.
When Eckenrode graduated from Saint Anselm College in 1990, she was only one of five women in her major, computer science. While Eckenrode hasn’t faced much discrimination in her career, she acknowledges that talented young women are not always choosing the “T” in the STEM acronym.
“Maybe young girls are finding things more ‘interesting’ to do,” she mused. “Does tech not seem as ‘fun’?”
Her fraternal twins, a daughter and a son, are college sophomores and they do see their friends majoring in areas such as microbiology, Eckenrode observed. “There is an interest in science,” she said.
Eckenrode’s focus right now is coding, and she runs an 18-week Coding Bootcamp for Nashua Community College. More than 50% of her current students are women, and that’s exciting to Eckenrode. “We need to have more women in coding,” she said.
The IT field benefits from a number of different perspectives, Eckenrode said, and the women in her course bring that. Some of her students have lost jobs due to COVID 19, particularly in the hospitality field. Others want to polish their skills. Several of her female students own their own businesses, and want to be better at the tech side, she said.
But there’s still a gap. Eckenrode said, “I don’t know if it’s how the field is perceived. When I graduated, coding was done in COBOL. We need to show women how it’s changed.”
Since Eckenrode has been working from home, she’s been able to virtually attend the Alliance’s Power Breakfast and finds it rewarding. She’s also participated as a speaker during Tech Week, and wants to be involved even more.
“I want to encourage children to think of the opportunities,” she said.
Demers believes making STEM a career option for girls should start even younger than high school.
The February Power Breakfast was held Wednesday, Feb. 10, and while it was virtual this year, Demers saw more than 100 women sign up. She was surprised at the success, noting, “I thought everyone would be having Zoom burnout and fatigue.”
Herrmann also co-chairs the annual luncheon. She said details on the luncheon were still being worked out at press time.
“But overall,” she said, “we’re always looking for ways to give students a pathway to speak to tech professionals.”For more information, visit www.nhtechalliance.org.