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Women of color in IT: few, confident, learning and leading

“Women of color are an unknown; people are unsure what we’re capable of. Trust your capabilities.” – Krishna Subramanian, Citrix

The importance of building credibility is a common thread among women of color in IT

'The numbers for women of color in IT are unfortunately very small. If we look at women of color getting PhDs in the field each year, for example, we can count them on one hand, maybe two,” explains Valerie Taylor, Texas A&M University senior associate dean for academic affairs and holder of the Royce E. Wisenbaker professorship of computer science and engineering.

For example, she says, a 2009 Department of Education survey reports that the number of black women receiving PhDs in computer science nationally was six; the number of Hispanic women was three; and the number of Native American women was one. “Though the numbers for bachelors degrees were slightly higher, that’s nowhere near good enough. And unfortunately we’re not seeing an upward trend anywhere. Though it varies slightly from year to year, it stays roughly the same,” she notes.

Efforts aim to support and connect
Fortunately, there are a number of promising efforts aimed at women of color. “Last year, there were 3,600 people in attendance at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. This year there were 4,700. There was a track in computing devoted to underrepresented women: minorities and women with disabilities. That conference and others like it provide great venues for women to get together and network, to share ideas, to just see others like themselves,” she notes.

“That type of reinforcing validation is often absent in the work environment and in many schools. Without opportunities for networking, you often begin to question whether a field is right for you.”

But the technology industry as a whole is growing, which of course means increased demand for pros with computer skills. The United States Department of Labor estimates that by 2018, there will be more than 1.4 million new computing-related jobs in the U.S. This is a 22 percent increase, making IT the fastest-growing job sector in the U.S.

More disappointing numbers
According to a 2010 report, “Women in IT: The Facts” by Catherine Ashcraft, PhD and Sarah Blithe, written for the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT), “In 2008, women held fifty-seven percent of all professional jobs in the U.S. workforce but only twenty-five percent of all professional IT-related jobs, down from thirty-six percent in 1991.”

Again the numbers were significantly lower for women of color. African American women held only 2 percent of those jobs, Hispanic women 1.5 percent, and Asian women 4 percent. But the issue is not just with the number of jobs. Level and rank of employment are equally important.

“The proportion of African American technical women goes from 4.6 percent at the entry level to 1.6 percent at the high level. The proportion of Latina/Hispanic women goes from 5 percent at the entry level to 0 percent at the highest level,” explains Catherine Simard, PhD, in her 2009 report, “Obstacles and Solutions for Underrepresented Minorities in Technology,” published by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI), a nonprofit organization that seeks to recruit, retain and advance women in technology.

Programs provide tools for success
But as Taylor says, there are signs of hope. And she’s part of the solution. Taylor is the executive director of the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in IT (CMD-IT), a nonprofit organization with “a vision of contributing to the national need for an effective workforce in computing and IT through synergistic activities related to minorities and people with disabilities.”

Taylor credits the work of organizations like ABI, ACM-W, and CMD-IT for their multifaceted approaches to supporting minorities and women in IT. She also believes their existence provides critical tools for success. “When I was a freshman and sophomore, I went to work at IBM. And they put me next to a Nobel Prize winner. And I thought, ‘No way!’ I still took a job at IBM, but at another site. They wondered why, but I was intimidated. I wasn’t ready to work next to a Nobel Prize winner; I couldn’t relate to that person. So at CMD-IT, we made videos to help bridge that gap between where entry-level people are and where they want to go.

“ACM-W’s DotDiva project is another great example of role modeling, where women in IT tell their IT success stories to girls. With programs like these, I’m very positive about the future. Hopefully one day soon, someone will look back at the data and identify an upward trend that started because of the many efforts underway right now focused on women of color in computing.”

Here are some stories of women of color in IT who are finding success today.

Denise Holmes ensures the health of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Texas IT systems
Dallas-based information technology group (ITG) ops manager Denise Holmes specializes in IT service delivery for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas (BCBSTX, Richardson, TX), a subsidiary of the Health Care Service Corp (HCSC, Chicago, IL). A thirty-one-year veteran of BCBSTX, Holmes takes pride in her people and the reliability of her systems.

“I lead a team of two managers and nine technical subject matter experts,” she reports. “ITG operations ensures systems are reliable and available to our customers. My operations readiness team makes certain that the operations teams have what they need to restore systems in the event of any issue. I have extensive experience in server administration, distributed environments, disaster recovery planning and networking, all of which I need to be effective in this role.”

Holmes earned her AA in computer science from Richland Community College (Dallas, TX) in 1982. Since then, she’s also received specialized training and certifications from numerous tech-related organizations including Microsoft and Novell.

Learning to stand proud
Holmes credits BCBSTX with an equitable environment. But she believes women must also do their part. “I’m proud to be a woman of color within a competitive, male-oriented industry. But things were different when I started out. Today there are wonderful opportunities for women of color to succeed in IT if they make the effort to stand head and shoulders above their peers. One of the biggest obstacles I’ve had to overcome was the fear of presenting proposals to a room full of men.”

Holmes has a passion for sharing her knowledge and experience with young professional women of color. She is active in the Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA), a nonprofit providing professional growth and technical development for African Americans in IT. Holmes mentors many promising professionals as president of the Dallas BDPA.

Striving for a “balanced workforce”
Chicago-based HCSC VP of diversity and inclusion Rita Taylor-Nash supports Holmes’s view of the company and her passion for mentoring. “We believe in a balanced workforce where we can leverage talent from all demographic groups. A company made up of people who approach problems in different ways will create better outcomes for employees and our members. Our ability to successfully recruit, engage, develop and promote talented multicultural women in technology and throughout HCSC helps position us as an employer of choice in the market.”

Connie Gomez analyzes and tests mobile products for CDW
As a senior quality assurance analyst at technology solutions provider CDW (Vernon Hills, IL), Connie Gomez uses her skills to direct the testing of mobile websites, native mobile applications, and responsive design applications from her office in the greater Chicago area. She joined CDW in 2007.

“Analysis is my IT specialty. I look at the process from a high-level perspective and determine how we can do things better and more efficiently. I view everything with the assumption that there is a better solution waiting to be discovered. I got in on the ground floor of CDW’s mobile efforts, and it has been very rewarding to help drive CDW’s digital edge by using information to improve the customer experience.”

Learning through school and work
Gomez began her education at the Gurnee, IL campus of Columbia College of Missouri, but transferred to Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, and graduated in December with a BS in workforce education and development. She regularly furthers her training through the Chicago Quality Assurance Association (Downers Grove, IL) and the Quality Assurance Institute (Orlando, FL). But Gomez believes there is no substitute for experience. “This industry is white-male dominated, but more importantly, it’s filled with really sharp people of every stripe. I know I have to stay current with the technologies I’m testing. And though schooling is important, you must also learn from your peers.”

Sharing experiences for maximum potential
Max Reed, CDW’s senior director for inclusion practices, agrees. He cites the peer-learning concept as one critical reason for diversity. “Diversity is a cornerstone of CDW’s success. We have a strong history and culture of leveraging diversity to create a workplace environment where coworkers can maximize their potential. One example of our success is the number of women in leadership roles at CDW. CDW, in the aggregate, has twenty-five percent women in leadership roles across all leadership levels. At the most senior level, women make up forty percent of our executive committee. Additionally, nine out of seventeen, fifty-three percent, of our corporate officers are women.”

Krishna Subramanian helps businesses adopt Citrix’s cloud
From her Silicon Valley office, Krishna Subramanian uses her considerable technical and marketing skills to help software company Citrix serve its cloud customers. Subramanian is VP of marketing for the company’s cloud platforms product group. A twenty-year IT veteran, she joined Citrix (Santa Clara, CA and Fort Lauderdale, FL) two years ago.

“I run a product marketing organization that enables businesses of all sizes to adopt the cloud. To market and sell technology, it’s important to understand and know the technology. I started my career as a software engineer designing compiler optimization for superscalar processors. From there, I moved to running a product organization, then founded and ran a couple of companies. The variety of roles I’ve played in my career has given me a broader understanding of what it takes to build a successful business. But it all started with a strong technical foundation.”

An entrepreneur with advice for others
In 1991, Subramanian earned a BS in computer science with a minor in business administration from Angelo State University (San Angelo, TX). She followed that in 1993 with an MS in computer science from the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign.

Armed with a variety of skills and a wealth of industry experience, Subramanian offers advice for women of color entering IT. “The primary issue is that we are an unknown; people are unsure what we’re capable of. So you must establish trust and credibility. It can be lonely because there are so few women in the field, but for that reason we also have a tremendous opportunity to set our own paths.

“Trust your own capabilities and do not be afraid to make changes,” she says. “Network and take advantage of organizations that support technical women. They provide valuable guidance and networking.”

Lovie Elizabeth Coney provides management and support to the Federal Reserve
Lovie Elizabeth Coney is a shift manager at the Federal Reserve Information Technology center (FRIT) in Richmond, VA. FRIT supplies national infrastructure and business line technology services to the entire Federal Reserve Bank (FRB) system, which includes twelve banks and the board of governors. At FRIT, Coney manages a team that handles incident and change management, test support and workload balancing across three data centers.

“Our work is vital to the Federal Reserve System. We ensure there are no disruptions to the computer services across the entire system. That’s essential both internally and for customer services.”

Coney began her career in the Dallas FRB with a summer job in the check and fiscal agency departments. She received a 1982 BS in computer operations and programming from Control Data Institute (Dallas, TX). She attended the Center for Creative Leadership (Colorado Springs, CO) in 2004, and the FRB’s leadership development program in 2008.

Mentor and be mentored
Coney says mentors and determination have made the difference in her career. “I have always had mentors, including white males. And they have been very helpful. But I have also been rewarded for the work I do and have done, though I know that is not necessarily the case for everyone. I’m fortunate that I have been around long enough to see women and minorities gain more opportunities in IT.”

Coney also believes the FRB culture has made an important difference in her career. “There is a very strong team culture here. We don’t allow our differences to divide us. Rather, we see our sameness and that allows us to support and complement each other’s work style and experience. I mentor those around me as I have been mentored.

“I would advise anyone starting an IT career to develop strong relationships with your team and leaders. Always ask questions when you are not sure of a plan, process or procedure, and be willing to collaborate with others.”

Infosys’s Priya Bajoria directs traffic where finance and technology intersect
Priyadarshini “Priya” Bajoria joined Infosys (Bangalore, India) in 2000. In her position as group manager and AVP for financial services and insurance, she delivers next-generation technology and consulting solutions from her New York City office. She also “owns the revenue and bottom line across a set of capital markets accounts” in her portfolio. And she’s responsible for developing and maintaining external financial services client relationships.

“I collaborate with internal teams across the broad spectrum of Infosys products and services to create innovative and value-added solutions to generate new business opportunities. So my expertise lies in the intersection of financial services and technology. And it’s based on my foundation: an undergraduate degree in computer science, an MBA in finance, and a six-year stint as an investment banker.”

Bajoria earned her computer science BS from Fergusson College, University of Pune (India) in 1992, where she was a top-ranking student. In 1994 she received an MBA in finance from the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, University of Mumbai (India), also ranking high in her class.

IT: a chance to bring a new perspective
Bajoria saw IT as an opportunity. “Joining the IT industry was a welcome change from the world of investment banking, which was truly a male-dominated field in the 1990s. My work as a business consultant and account manager lets me bring a different perspective to the team. I have also built a network with other women.

“Today, a STEM career offers a wealth of opportunity, more so now than ever before. But women must leverage a strong educational foundation and take advantage of opportunities to gain experience on the job. Never hesitate to take on new challenges.”

Bajoria also believes in giving back. “As the regional head for Infosys in the New York/New Jersey area, I spearhead a multi-pronged program for employee engagement and community outreach. Through a grant from the Infosys Foundation USA, I have been engaged with the STEM mentoring program of the New York Academy of Sciences in New York City.”

Encouraging women at Infosys
Sandra Jackson, Americas senior manager for EEO/ diversity and inclusion at Infosys, says Bajoria’s involvement with STEM outreach illustrates the company’s commitment to diversity.

“Diversity is woven into our business strategy and helps us define the way we add value for all our stakeholders. At Infosys, women make up thirty-four percent of our global population. We encourage women to mentor other women through our Infosys Women’s Inclusivity Network (IWIN) mentoring program. Infosys has started a women’s forum in the consulting practice. In this forum, men and women come together to help retain women in the company, and senior principal women mentor junior MBA graduates.”

Sherry Green manages contingent workforce IT solutions for Intel
Intel (Santa Clara, CA) program manager Sherry Green implements contingent workforce solutions for internal business groups from her office in Chandler, AZ. She is also the team lead for an outsourcing line of business. She’s been with Intel for eighteen years.

“Intel found me at the University of Arizona. I submitted my resume and Intel called,” she recalls. “I went through the interview process and was hired. I tell people that I grew up professionally at Intel.”

Green got her BS in business administration in 1994 from the University of Arizona (Tucson). She followed that with a 1999 MBA in computer/information technology administration and management from the University of Phoenix (AZ).

Green feels she’s had a very uncommon IT industry experience. “I am black and a woman, obviously, but being a ‘double minority’ isn’t something I really had to confront in my professional experience. I pride myself on the results I achieve and the work I do. I don’t look at my work from the perspective of a woman or a minority. I just see myself as Sherry Green, an Intel employee.”

Do what makes you happy, or else
Green values her technical training and experience. But she believes there are other keys to success as well. “Whatever it is that you’re going to pursue, make sure it’s something you enjoy. If you’re not happy doing your job, you start dwelling on the negatives of the job, the company, and the work environment. Focus on achieving results and become known for the results you achieve. Then let the results speak for themselves.”

Intel works at diversity and inclusion
Jason Saavedra, U.S. diversity talent delivery manager, notes that Intel devotes resources to programs that let workers experience the same kind of successful involvement as Green. “Intel has a number of programs focused on our commitment to diversity. We have incorporated annual diversity hiring goals, and we have more than twenty employee groups, along with educational opportunities and diversity-focused training and diversity scholarship programs,” he says.

“The way we do business and make changes to our product landscape needs to have a diverse viewpoint as we continue to compete in a global marketplace. Each woman of color offers her own unique expertise, skill set and rich perspective, and that drives business decisions for Intel.”

Tiffany Hunt helps Nationwide internal business partners leverage Lean Six Sigma
Tiffany Hunt is a VP for the business transformation office at Nationwide Insurance (Columbus, OH). She’s been at Nationwide for two years, and brings a wealth of business and technical experience to the table.

“I lead a group that has two basic functions. We help internal business partners solve complex problems, and we develop and deploy Six Sigma capabilities across Nationwide. We need people with strong problem-solving skills, intellectual capital and executive sponsorship to do our jobs effectively,” she believes.

Hunt’s undergraduate degree in industrial operations and engineering is from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor). In 2001, she got her Six Sigma black belt certification while working as an engineer at Ford Motor Company.

One woman of color’s perspective
Hunt acknowledges that the road can be challenging in IT for women of color, but the journey is worth it. “Being one of the few African American females in the engineering program at Michigan, and also in my field, I learned quickly that building credibility through performance was critical. Fortunately, engineering and IT are data-driven fields, where most decisions are made based on facts, not perceptions. Although bias exists, when success is objectively measured, you can overcome obstacles through a strong work ethic, a bias for action and a focus on results.”

Hunt also believes that where you work and for whom are critical. “I have been fortunate to work for companies that value diversity, diverse opinions and perspectives. As a double minority, I have been able to leverage these opportunities to advance my career.”

Nationwide connects with communities
Rocky Parker, Nationwide’s VP of talent acquisition, notes that “Nationwide is committed to diversity. That’s why our approach to attracting top-tier talent includes connecting with minority communities and organizations,” he says.

“We have longstanding relationships with national partners like the National Black MBA Association, National Society of Hispanic MBAs, National Urban League, and others that provide access to highly talented candidates. In 2012 alone, Nationwide made job offers for dozens of IT positions at the national conferences of these organizations.”

Shalaka Prabhune keeps Symantec’s application operations on the cutting edge
Shalaka Prabhune is the director of IT global applications for Symantec Corporation (Mountain View, CA). She’s been with the company since 2006. Prabhune defines processes for applications development and maintenance.

“Whether it concerns project delivery, enhancements, or day-to-day operational support, my job is to ensure we have consistent processes, methods and underlying tools to deliver successfully.”

Prabhune got a 1998 BS in computer engineering from the College of Hi-Tech Engineering (Pune, India). In 2008, she added a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute (Newtown Square, PA).

Help yourself and others progress
Prabhune credits mentors for putting her on the right track. But she recognizes that the road to success “starts with number one. Never underestimate yourself. Recognition of your talent and capability starts with you. Despite challenges, I have not stopped progressing. I did work hard, but I also met some great male and female leaders and managers who recognized my talent and helped me tremendously. But people cannot read your mind. So unless you speak up, your great ideas, issues and pleas for help will not be heard.

“Just because you have been through challenges, don’t put others in similar situations. Instead, teach everyone what you have learned from your experiences, and try to eliminate those obstacles from their paths, whether they are men or women. Help others progress and see how rewarding it is to see someone grow and succeed.”

Prabhune is actively involved in a mentoring program called TechWomen, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, which brings several talented emerging leaders from countries in the Middle East and North Africa to Silicon Valley for one-month mentoring programs. She is also a member of the Symantec Women’s Action Network.

Georgina Halfkenny helps U.S. Bank customers bank on the go
Georgina Halfkenny is a mobile web development manager for U.S. Bank (Minneapolis, MN). She’s been a software developer for fourteen years, and joined U.S. Bank in 2012 to work in consumer mobile banking. She works in San Francisco, CA.

“At U.S. Bank, I find great pleasure working with a team that’s dedicated to empowering our customers to complete bank transactions using their Android or iOS-powered smart phones or tablets.”

Halfkenny began her IT journey after she got a BS in computer information systems from the DeVry Institute of Technology (Calgary, Alberta) in 1999. She got her PMP certification in 2013. She advocates speaking up to gain recognition for your accomplishments. “I’m proactive and ask for what I want instead of waiting for others to discover me. I believe that focusing on how my work benefits the organization helps me win support from leadership and management. I also seek out experiences that will let me brush elbows with those who can recognize my abilities,” she notes.

“Being in the right place at the right time is also a recurring theme in my professional life. But for every lucky break I’ve had, I’ve also dedicated many hours to preparation.”

Diversity at U.S. Bank
“U.S. Bank values diversity because of our commitment to the communities we serve, and also because it’s good business,” says recruitment manager Jesse Nergard. “Our focus on diversity helps us achieve our goal of building the best bank in America. And diversity in our employee base gives us more insight into products and tools that we can create or enhance to improve customer service.”

Christine Wong Di Silvio: applications management for Life Technologies
Life Technologies (LifeTech, Carlsbad, CA) senior manager Christine Wong Di Silvio inspires the applications teams she leads to manage IT helpdesk tickets effectively and provide better customer service. She started at LifeTech ten years ago as a contract-to-hire analyst, but she became an employee within two months.

“I have worked in all areas, from manufacturing to call center to integration activities. But it’s my project management and facilitation experience that helped me become successful. Being able to listen and prioritize activities have also served me well, as they’re both important skills for managing a busy IT environment.”

Di Silvio graduated cum laude from the University of Arizona (Tucson) in 1997, earning a BS in finance with a certificate in international business. Law was her original career target. But she received an offer from one of the Big Six accounting firms and opted for consulting instead, which led to IT.

Advice to professional women
“As a woman, I often find you must strike a balance between making your voice heard and coming across too strong,” she says. “Early on I struggled with this quite a bit, but as I gained experience I learned to change the way I communicated. Now I have a much better understanding of my audience.”

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