How to Succeed as a Woman in IT

by Janet Pinkerton | May 31, 2012

High school students learn about potential careers at Harvey Mudd College's Women Engineers and Scientists of Tomorrow event in February.

Photo: Schenck and Schenck Photography

Through her advice and her own career story, Maria Klawe, president of STEM-centric Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., offers many insights about how women can secure the experience, knowledge and support for successful IT or STEM-related careers.

Take hard-core computer science courses—lots of them—and don't be intimidated.

Continuously taking computer science courses is a matter of necessity, given technology’s lightning speed rate of change, Klawe contends. “If some students appear to know more than you do, ignore it,” says Klawe, a computer scientist, mathematician, and a Microsoft board member. “Research tells us there are lots of students who start college with zero experience in computer science and do really well.” To those who are not enrolled in college, or who can’t or don’t want to be, Klawe suggests trying one of the free online computer science courses offered by MIT and Stanford. “See how you like it,” she says. “It’s a fantastic way to have access to the same knowledge that they are teaching at MIT and Stanford.” Klawe encourages honing software programming skills to capitalize on the current shortage of software developers. “The most important thing is to have a reasonable knowledge of software development, testing and quality assurances.”

Find a peer group. If you can't find one, make one.

“Male or female, it’s important that you make sure you have people who are going to be encouraging and supportive,” says Klawe. If you are in college, talk to a female faculty member or a female graduate student about what’s available or about starting a peer group. Talk to your department chair about getting funding to go to the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women Conference, a program of the Anita Borg Institute of Women & Technology, she suggested.

Actively and Strategically Seek Advice and Guidance

Throughout her career, Klawe has periodically sought advice of people who were more senior than she. For example: She once buttonholed three leading mathematicians at a conference about whether earning a PhD in computer science was a crazy idea or a great opportunity for a person like her who already had a doctorate in mathematics. (All three were very encouraging.) “I’ve only had two people not be friendly and helpful,” she says. “The vast majority of people you ask to provide advice are actually very willing to do so.”

Cultivate Your Own Professional Development

Early in her career, Klawe joined IBM Research, where her husband Nicholas Pippenger also worked. The stint at IBM turned out to be a professional boon. “In those days, they had phenomenally good professional development for leadership,” Klawe says. At IBM, Klawe learned about employee supervision, goal-setting, performance evaluations, compensation systems and leadership skills, hard and soft. “I also gained lots of insight about who I was as a person and what were going to be my strengths and weaknesses,” she says. Klawe continues to participate in training workshops, and has recently discovered the benefits of executive coaches. “They’re great!” Say Yes to Leadership Opportunities One of the mathematicians Klawe buttonholed decades ago was Ronald Graham of the University of California, San Diego. It was Graham who later suggested to Klawe that she might be a good trustee for the American Mathematical Society. “It was 1991, the year I turned 40, so I was relatively young,” recalls Klawe. She indeed became an AMS trustee, a role she calls a great learning experience. “Once you start taking on these leadership positions, it opens up the possibility for other leadership positions,” she says.

Network, Network, Network

According to Klawe, the biggest challenge for women in IT is that “there are just very few women around.” But, she says, “The best way to cope with that is simply networking.” Get to know women throughout your company, in other companies, and even other industries, she says, “so if you are feeling isolated, you can talk to somebody about it and feel less isolated.” In general, Klawe is rabid proponent of all types of networking, with men or women, in a variety of different professional environments. “It’s amazing how much just getting to know different people in different places can help you, not just in terms of people who can give advice at critical moments, but also people who can connect you to other people who are going to be helpful.”

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