If you had to pick a role model for young women who are interested in IT as an academic pursuit and a career, who would you pick? How about a woman who not only serves as chief technology officer of a major software company, but also as a member of the board of trustees of one of the top engineering schools in the United States?
That woman is Karen Tegan Padir, CTO of Bedford, Mass.-based Progress Software, and a trustee at her alma mater, Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass. Padir, who also has stints as vice president of engineering at Sun Microsystems and Red Hat under her belt, is passionate about helping young people in general, and women in particular, succeed in the IT profession. Her ties to WPI, where she spends eight to 10 days a year hanging out with students, make the run-up to graduation season a fitting time for Padir to share her advice for young women who are graduating with hopes of pursuing a career in IT.
I had the opportunity to speak with Padir last week, and I asked her what the difference is between what lies ahead for male and female computer science graduates. She said women need to expect to have to work harder than men.
“For women, it’s getting much better, but I still think there’s this thing that you’ve kind of got to prove that you’re smart in math and science,” Padir said. “I don’t think it’s a smartness issue, but rather a matter of what are the things that are appealing to each gender. So you have to prove yourself a little more—I know I always felt that way, that I had to work a little harder to prove that I was just as smart as the guys."
At the same time, Padir said women need to appreciate the value of balance.
“You have to fit in like one of the guys, but you can’t be one of them, because you are a woman—don’t try to be a man,” she said. “Men tend to be able to get away with being a little more direct and harsh than women can, because with women it comes across as being bitchy. For young women entering the field, I don’t think that’s as big of an issue as it is when you get into the leadership ranks—you do have to worry about that a little bit more.”
Like almost all successful women I’ve spoken with who offer career advice to young women, Padir stresses the importance of finding a mentor. I asked her if it matters whether a woman’s mentor is male or female. She said it doesn’t, but she noted that in her personal experience, her best mentors were men.
“The reason is that they will see you as other men will see you,” Padir said. “In my environment, there are way more men than women, so I find that my best mentors have been men. I also surround myself with wonderful, smart women, and we certainly collaborate. But if you only surround yourself with people who are just like you, and you’re getting all your advice from people who think like you, you’re not getting the best advice. So find a mentor, whether it be a man or a woman, who has a different perspective from you.”