Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Priorities, Careers and Kids - Being an IT Mom

Most of them time when I'm at work, I'm not very in-tune with the gender of the people I'm working with. They aren't men and women to me, they are coworkers. And that's a good thing because it means I see the individuals as themselves and not as a stereotype.

However, there are moments, like when I'm in a college course or on a business trip, when I am struck strongly with the fact that I am one of a decreasingly smaller number of women in technology.  In school I was usually the only female in my computer science courses, and at work I am one of only three technically inclined-women.  My mentors have all been men!  On business trips with outside software vendors I'm struck with the fact that NONE of the upper management in IT or the software developers are women - if there are women at all they are functional analysts or documentation writers or help-desk managers, and there aren't many even in those fields.

I'm not one to believe in the so-called glass-ceiling - I think it's simply that women aren't as interested in what it takes to be successful in technology.  When women really want a career in a field, they can make it happen.  But I am curious about WHY?

I think IT is a natural field for women: technology in business is about improving internal and external communication, organizing business processes to make them more efficient, making it easier for customers to find what they need, organizing information in a way that is useful for decision makers, etc.  Those are all stereotypically female activities(think about how many women are secretaries and good at it!  I was a secretary before I moved into IT.  The same "soft" skills are used in both fields.)

Perhaps it's the geeky stuff that scares women away - I was never interested in coding at all even though my dad and brother did it.  But that's because I didn't really know what they were doing.  Once I was introduced to programming via VBA in Microsoft Access, I fell in love with software and database development.  Coding is just like giving a "to do" list to the computer.  I get to organize and functionality needed, find ways to make it easier for people to use the program, make the screen "look pretty", etc.  (Maybe that's part of what attracts women to web design more than other aspects of IT.  The visual and artistic side of it is undeniable, even though the "geeky stuff" is still part of it.)

Then again, perhaps it's the travel.  I'm currently away on a (very rare for me) business trip.  I had to leave my daughter at home with her daddy for a whole week!  It breaks my heart to hear that she asks for me first thing in the morning.  Often travel is a big part of IT, and moms really don't want to have to leave their babies behind for that long (but admit it - a weekend in a hotel with no one tugging on your pants leg has its appeal!!).

Also, "crunch time" can call for some long, intense hours. Every business is different - for me it's elections, so my crunch-time happens on an expected, scheduled basis.   But that means I work 60 hour weeks during that season and my daughter sees me for only an hour or two each day.  That's tough for a mom to swallow, especially us Christian moms who believe it is our calling to teach our babies about our faith.

Despite the hype, most IT jobs are NOT easy to "do from home".  I've tried.  Trying to write software for school while watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse just doesn't work for me!  My productivity drops significantly because of the constant interruptions, as I explain what that animal is, what is Mickey doing, "look, it's a purple flower!", etc.  Being a mom takes intense concentration, being a coder takes intense concentration.  Doing both at the same time means doing neither well.

Perhaps expectations need to change.  I'd like to see more women in IT (it can get lonely here!).  But perhaps we are going about it all wrong.

First, I think businesses need to find ways to make it easier for a women to be a mom and an IT professional.  Things like remote work locations so that commuter time is significantly decreased (commuting 40 minutes one way or more takes a huge chunk out of the day!), scheduling fewer business trips and doing more via teleconferencing (we are IT, after all!),  and working to even the load throughout the year so crunch time is less intense would all go far toward making moms more capable of staying in an IT career.

Second, I think women (and businesses!) need to give women more time to ease into IT. There is this PUSH toward become successful professionals on the same timelines as the men. Get into a good college, be great at your undergraduate degree, find a good job, work your way up, be in middle management by early 30s and upper management by early 40s.

Ummm - where's the room for being a mom?  Somewhere in there women will get married and have babies and between maternity leave and those foggy months of raising an infant, even full-time working women will fall behind at work.  And technology requires constant learning to keep up because the field changes so much so quickly.  This leads to feelings of disappointment on the part of IT managers and mentors who don't understand why this woman just can't keep up.  And it leads to feelings of failure on the part of the woman who wants to "do it all".

So change the timetable.  Sure, go to school, earn the degree, get the job, etc.  But marriage and family, if they happen, can and should take priority.  Some women may choose to stop working, if their husbands can support them.  Some, like myself, will stay in the workplace but slow down the pace.  I'm in a steady job that maintains my skills and gives me opportunities to improve, but it's not a pressure filled workplace with a push for advancement.

Then, start thinking about not getting into middle or upper management until the kids go to college.  If a women has her children early (like in her early to mid 20s), she'll have more free time in her late 30s, early 40s.  If a woman has kept in touch with the basics of her field through part-time work, hobbies, or a low-key full-time job, she will have catching up to do but not so much as if she quit paying attention all together. At that point, take some grad courses, do some volunteer work, start pushing to become the expert you couldn't be while your babies still needed you.

And by 55 (or so) you can be in management (if you want to be).

I think our culture has confused us.  By putting careers first in priority and first chronologically, women are falling behind in those careers that require intense attention.  We just need to flip-flop our thinking.  Just because you want to be a CIO some day doesn't mean it has to happen at 35 - why not 55 or 60?

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