Getting More Women in Government IT

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It’s a well-documented fact that women are underrepresented in tech. Despite decades of working to increase their representation, still only about 25 percent of tech jobs are held by women. Leaders in the tech world are not giving up on reversing that trend, however, and are doubling down on efforts to recruit and retain female workers and to show young girls that technology jobs can be rewarding, fun and welcoming.

GovTech spoke with a number of government technology leaders to gauge their views on the issue and to gather advice for women striving to get into the field or stay in it, often despite a less-than-welcoming environment.

“It’s multi-faceted,” Catherine Ashcraft, a researcher with the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), said of the low number of women in the field. “It needs to be addressed from multiple angles and multiple levels.”

Many gov tech leaders, like Tennessee CIO Stephanie Dedmon, don’t necessarily have math or computer backgrounds, but thrive in the collaborative environment of public IT work. / Credit: David Kidd


Dispelling the Geek Factor

Too often, people — and women especially — view tech jobs as roles where workers sit in dark cubicles coding into all hours of the night, several people contacted for this story said. If employers want to recruit more women — and a diverse range of job candidates in general — they need to highlight that today’s tech jobs involve collaboration, project management and big-picture thinking, tech leaders said. In other words, it’s time to take aim at the “geek factor.”

“Technology has so many aspects … tech is important to environmental science, health and human services, transportation, even corrections …,” said California CIO Amy Tong. “That’s the beauty of technology: It has so much flexibility and it allows for creativity.”

Many tech leaders say that if technology jobs can be reframed toward their public service value, the field would attract more workers in general, and women in particular.

“We have to dispel the geekiness factor,” said Delaware CIO James Collins, whose department has launched a multi-pronged effort to recruit more women. “People think of tech people as geeks, and no one wants to be a geek. We have to show how tech impacts people’s lives and is meaningful work.”

Tech also isn’t just the purview of math wizzes and programmers. Several women in tech took circuitous routes to the field. For example, Tennessee CIO Stephanie Dedmon majored in marketing as an undergraduate, then realized she didn’t want to go into sales, so she pursued an MBA. The MBA was not a specialty program, so she took courses in accounting, statistics and computer science. After graduating, she took a job with a consulting firm that had some tech clients. She found she liked the work.

“It wasn’t so much the technology side, but working with people,” she said. She took a job with the state in 2005 to do an ERP implementation.

“In my experience in state government, if you are a problem solver, can build teams and work well with others, the sky is the limit,” she said. “I fell in love with helping people understand technology and how to leverage technology to provide better services.”

Dedmon moved up the ranks, and about four years ago, the then-CIO came to her and said he wanted to retire and she was his succession plan. He promoted her to deputy, and she later became CIO.  

“I earned the opportunity, but I was given the chance to ascend into the role,” she said.

Christie Burris, executive director of the North Carolina Health Information Exchange Authority within the North Carolina Department of IT, said she, too, did not take a “straight path” to tech.

“My background was journalism, public relations. I came to the state … because they wanted to bring in an experienced [communications] person … within a matter of months, I found myself within the acting director role,” she said. “I learned I had a passion for the tech space and the service side of working within state government.”

Burris added that tech is “so much more than ones and zeroes.”

“Tech touches on all different types of sectors … technology is there and available for you to deliver the services, but also to feed that creative side.”

Tong said she was weak at math as an undergraduate and discovered her love of tech when she wrote a “logic-based” computer program to help her solve math problems. She noted that it is important to erase the “stigma” that tech jobs require math wizardry.

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Teri Takai, a veteran CIO at both the state and federal levels, said the hardest part about moving to government IT was “understanding politics with a big ‘P.’” / David Kidd


Navigating the Sometimes-Rocky Career Path 

Experts recommend that women let those around them know they are interested in more responsibility and a diversity of tasks. And they shouldn’t over-worry that they are being denied positions because they are a woman. That’s the overarching advice many tech leaders offered women entering the tech field.

“I didn’t spend a lot of time as I was coming up through my career worrying about how many of my obstacles were because I was a woman,” said Teri Takai, executive director of the Center for Digital Government.*

Takai’s path in the tech world was broad and varied. After graduating with a math major from the University of Michigan, she knew she didn’t want to teach and accepted a job as a computer programmer at Ford Motor Company, where she spent 30 years ascending the ranks. A friend introduced her to then-Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who was in need of a CIO. Though Takai wasn’t looking for a new position at the time, she wanted to enter public service to give back. She accepted the job, and later went on to work as CIO for the state of California and for the Department of Defense under President Barack Obama.  

“My real challenge when I went into government was understanding politics with a big ‘P,’” she said. But she has never looked back, and found the government work highly gratifying. She says it is important that women “stick up for themselves in the workplace.”

“You have to think about what you want next from a career perspective and make that known,” Takai said. “And you’ve got to be resilient.”

Takai said she has been called a “survivor.”

“I’ve survived times where my career was stalled. I survived times where individuals got promoted over me and I wasn’t happy about it … but I kept pushing.”

Susan Kellogg, North Carolina’s deputy state CIO, said she gravitated to computers in high school.

“My brain is wired that way,” she said. After working for the University of North Carolina in various CIO roles, she went to work for the state after being recruited by former CIO Tracy Doaks.

“The tech community is relatively small,” she said, which is why she advises people to network.

Kellogg believes one of her strongest traits in the workplace is her ability to “talk like a real person” and avoid technical jargon when interacting with people.

“The ability to gauge the audience is important,” Kellogg said. “With the tech people I could switch to that as well. One of my success factors is that I can focus on either side.”

Kellogg added that for both women and men, it is important to “know yourself, know your core values” and pursue opportunities that align with those.

“If you understand yourself well, you will understand the environments you will thrive in,” she said. “Success doesn’t mean you will survive in every place.”

Kellogg also advises women to “find your support group … it doesn’t need to be techies either,” she said. “Seek those groups out and if one doesn’t exist, create it.”

Sharon Kennedy Vickers, CIO of St. Paul, Minn., said that women in tech need to have an “unwavering belief in [their] capabilities” because “there are going to be a lot of individuals who believe you don’t belong in that space.”

Creating an Inclusive Work Environment 

Kennedy Vickers says that one of the biggest challenges to recruiting and retaining women in the tech field is the fact that the workplace isn’t always a welcoming environment for women.  

“We have to create space that is welcoming and offer opportunities for women to thrive,” Kennedy Vickers said.

Catherine Ashcraft, of NCWIT, agrees. She said research reveals that women leave tech jobs at twice the rate of men “because of the biases.” NCWIT has developed a “change model” to help workplaces become more inclusive and welcoming to women. The model advises taking a strategic, ecosystem approach, addressing the issue across all facets of the organization, and enlisting top leadership, educating managers and ensuring data transparency.

“[Some workplaces] have subtle screening processes that inadvertently screen out women in the workplace … subtle biases that happen in task management … similar micro inequities,” Ashcraft said.

Ashcraft advised that managers need to take care to see who is speaking in meetings, who is interrupting and being interrupted, and to look closely at interview questions to screen for biases.

Kennedy Vickers said women leave tech workplaces because they “encounter a lot of misogyny and discrimination.”

“If we want to see an increase of women in the space, we have to understand that it is a business imperative, as well as a moral imperative,” said Kennedy Vickers. “We know that organizations that are diverse outperform those that are not.”

Rob Lloyd, CIO of San Jose, Calif., said the underrepresentation of women and some ethnicities in tech has been a “long-time challenge that is worse in some places than in others.”

“Once you get up to 30 percent-plus of different genders and ethnicities, it’s normalized,” said Lloyd, who oversees a staff in San Jose that is 50 percent female.

He added that when he is interviewing for new hires, he requires that both men and women be on the interview panel and among the interviewees. He also advocates that CIOs and managers coach and mentor employees.

“A year ago, we said the next big challenge for tech was going to be about equity,” Lloyd said, adding that human resource professionals need to get better at addressing the problem too.

“They will sometimes protect the organization or deny the problem,” he said. “I’m grateful for the approach to race and gender equity we take in San Jose. It’s honest and biased toward action.”

Collins says his organization in Delaware was recently looking to hire five new service representatives and when the final candidates crossed his desk, all were men.

“I asked, ‘Were there no potential candidates that were female?’” he said, adding that his staff told him they believed the candidates they put forth were the “most qualified.”

Collins says if a woman or underrepresented candidate is qualified for a position, but perhaps not the most qualified of a pool, they should be given a shot at the interview process and job.

“They went back and found some great talent,” Collins said.

Gerald Young, a senior research associate at the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, said he believes government technology jobs in particular are harder to fill with women because it is difficult to compete with the private sector for all job candidates. In government, he added, “there is not a lot of leeway to grant hiring bonuses or incentives beyond a step increase.” However, government positions do often offer better benefits than the private sector, he noted.

Young advises local governments looking to hire tech talent to recruit on campuses and attract potential employees before they graduate.

“Sometimes [students] aren’t even aware that working in the public sector is an option,” he said.

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St. Paul., Minn., CIO Sharon Kennedy Vickers believes that creating a welcoming environment for women in gov tech will boost not only organizational diversity, but also agency performance. / David Kidd


Build the Pipeline

Research reveals that young girls make the decision about whether they will go into a tech career very early — often around age 11. Across the country, efforts are underway to demystify tech jobs and entice more girls into the profession. Groups such as Girls Go CyberStart, Black Girls Code and DigiGirlz work to educate girls about the possibilities for them in technology.

Most all of the tech leaders contacted for this story stressed the importance of mentorship in educating girls about tech careers and helping young women stay in tech careers.

“It’s important to let girls see other women in the field and to connect with them,” said Kellogg.  

Burris also said education about tech needs to start early with girls to teach them how “varied, impactful and engaging the careers are.” This can be achieved through organizations targeting girls and young women and through parents and teachers talking about tech careers. Burris also engages in a mentoring program for women called Triangle Women in STEM, referring to the region of North Carolina where three major research universities are located.

But Kennedy Vickers stressed that there is a distinction between mentorship and sponsorship.  

“A mentor is someone you can come to who offers advice,” she said. “A sponsor is someone who is actively working with you to open doors and provide opportunities to advance.”

Dedmon said it is important to advise girls and young women that even if they are not sure tech is the career for them, they should take classes in tech.

And Tong has a simple message for anyone looking to get into the tech field: “If I can do it, anyone can do it.”

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