On October 8, information technology (IT) professionals from around the world gathered virtually for the second annual University of Redlands Tech Summit. Hosted by the University’s Information Technology Services, the free event featured more than 20 sessions and included a panel about the experiences of women in the field.
In his opening remarks, Chief Information Officer Steve Garcia spoke about how the COVID-19 pandemic stretched and challenged his team: from investing in business continuity tools to supporting staff members and administrators working from home, the department’s focus on the future allowed it to switch to a virtual work environment quickly.
Garcia also noted the University’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts and the department’s commitment to those ideals influenced the event’s programming. “Our IT department is a relatively diverse group, with one exception: we don’t have very good gender diversity,” he said, noting that this is true in the larger industry as well.
Each year, the Tech Summit includes an essay competition open to University of Redlands undergraduate students. This year, the competition's prize, a $3,000 scholarship, was awarded to Clare McElligott '24, who wrote about disability and technology.
Additionally, through the University’s Inclusive Community and Justice Fund initiative, Garcia and his team recently established an internship program in the department's Information Security Office that seeks to bring students of color into the information security field.
How to get there from here
In an effort to address the topic of gender diversity head-on, six women who had decades of professional experience in cybersecurity and privacy, software, IT, and consulting were featured on a panel. Radhika Iyengar, a managing partner at StarChain Ventures, moderated the discussion, which touched on how to confront gender bias in a male-dominated field and what women can do to support each other.
The panelists—who underlined how teams with cultural and ideological diversity make more well-rounded products—also spoke of the need for inclusive hiring pools. Stephanie Holt '98 (MBA), a consultant and advocate for women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) leadership roles, encouraged the expansion of recruiting efforts beyond colleges and universities. “We need to think about educational diversity,” she said. “There are great boot camps and other educational avenues to get into the field, and there are women who are ready to take the next step, but they don’t check the degree box—how we qualify people needs to change.”
In response to Iyengar’s question about the validity of hiring quotas—numerical requirements for hiring and promoting members of underrepresented groups—speakers offered an array of opinions. U of R Deputy Chief Technology Officer Kimberly Perna and Esri Chief Information Security and Privacy Officer Jennifer West said that quotas can make accomplishments feel disingenuous, leading colleagues to believe that someone received a job to satisfy a stipulation. Holt and Chapman University Chief Information Officer Helen Norris suggested that certain policies can aid necessary change within an organization.
“Women were kept out of roles for decades because of policy and law,” said Norris, noting that, when she first started applying to and interviewing for high-level positions, she was sure she had been offered interviews because recruiters and hiring organizations want a diverse pool of applicants. “Just because those laws don’t exist anymore doesn’t mean that things are going to change overnight.”
In addition to DEI efforts, the group discussed the importance of cultivating positive workplace cultures for women. In order to keep talented women engaged at work, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Kaizen Technology Partners Dao Jensen emphasized communication. “Gathering feedback is always really important from a retention perspective,” she said. “Organizations should be learning constantly and continually improving.”
In order to build these positive environments, women themselves have to be a part of the solution. As the conversation moved on to address mentorship, panelists spoke of guidance that was critical to their careers, as well as the need for women to mentor male employees.
“Having a female mentor early on in my career challenged me to work hard and made me want to help other women on my teams and in my organizations because it benefits everyone,” said Perna, who thinks that mentorship encourages goal-setting and growth. Perna actively advises student workers in the U of R ITS department in order to introduce them to different aspects of the IT field and its various career paths.
Looking to the future, the panelists offered advice for women in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Holt, who posited that the pandemic has heavily impacted women because people are reverting to traditional gender roles, said that women need to make specific and actionable requests when trying to balance work and home life. For example, asking that meetings not be scheduled before or after a certain time on certain days, instead of just requesting that colleagues be flexible.
‘An industry conversation’
Throughout the discussion, over 100 participants engaged with each other in a chat feature, which was part of the virtual event’s platform. Kailee Jackson-Russo ’21, a political science and public policy student minoring in spatial studies, offered her gratitude to the panelists, saying that she appreciated the summit’s prioritization of women’s voices.
Concentrating her studies in public law and national security, Jackson-Russo chose to attend the summit to learn more about security analysis and attended the panel because she wanted to hear a candid commentary on what it is like to work in an industry largely comprised of men.
“Political science, policy, national security, and [geographic information systems] are all male-dominated fields, which can be intimidating,” she said. “I appreciated that these women acknowledged the role that their support plays in the workplace—it made the conversation feel real and personable. Throughout the conference, there was an acknowledgment of women as a minority in the industry, especially on all-male panels. It was reassuring to see that this was an industry conversation, not just a ‘women in the industry’ conversation.”