For years, I have been asking corporate executives, IT consultants, authors, pundits, and just about anyone else who has anything to say on the matter: What do we need to do in order to end the gender imbalance that has characterized the IT profession in this country since its inception?
The response I received in an interview with a female technology executive earlier this month was remarkable for its pragmatism, and for its simplicity: Look outside the United States to countries like China that don’t have this problem, and learn from them.
That female IT executive is Monica Eaton-Cardone, founder and CIO of Global Risk Technologies (GRT), a payment services security and mediation firm, and an outspoken advocate for women in technology. If such a global perspective on the question at hand is outside the norm—and in my experience, it certainly is—one thing that might help explain it is the fact that Eaton-Cardone’s background is quite outside the norm for an IT executive, male or female.
Consider this excerpt from the January 2015 press release announcing Eaton-
Citing her own career progression, Eaton-Cardone asserts that women don't need a computer science degree to enter and advance within the IT field. She parlayed an educational background in art and architecture into employment as an interior designer, and later into the launch of her first business, Resort Furnishings. In subsequent business enterprises, she cultivated skills in direct-response techniques for customer-retention campaigns, operated multiple call centers and became an Internet retailer—and in all of these ventures, she taught herself how to apply and develop relevant technology.
I asked Eaton-Cardone in what ways she thought being female might have contributed to her wherewithal to accomplish that. She said she was unsure whether being female was a pro or a con, and she went on to explain why:
That may be due to my upbringing. I grew up in small towns, and traveled very frequently. I had a home-school education for many years, and I grew up in an environment where there really wasn’t much of a difference between a boy and a girl—you went out on the farm and you got work done, and there were no exceptions. So I didn’t grow up with that astigmatism. When I was in junior high I went to public school, and this really opened the door to some interest in technology. We had moved to this new school, and I had to select what elective classes I wanted to take. Naturally, I was interested in sewing, home ec, fashion design—the more traditional areas that a girl that age would be interested in. But unfortunately, none of those classes were available. The only classes that were available were wood shop and computer programming. So I enrolled in those classes, and you know what? I developed an aptitude for math. Prior to that, I hadn’t been very passionate about math—it was just a subject, and it wasn’t something I necessarily had an affinity for. But in wood shop, you deal with so many angles, and you actually find out how to apply numbers to create solutions. And then in computer programming, I wrote this little program, like a hangman [word game] program. That was the best class I had ever taken—I had so much fun in that class. But I got into this not anticipating that computer programming would be something that was creative and aesthetic, where you got to build something from the ground up and see it come to life. So there may be an unforeseen interest, or aptitude, or talent you may have—a lot of girls just don’t have the opportunity to find out if they have those skills, or if they’re going to have that interest.
At that point I brought up a piece that Eaton-Cardone had written last month for her personal website, titled, “Why Female Business Owners Are Most Likely to Succeed.” I told her that after reading the piece, I was still unsure of the premise. Was she saying that female business owners are more likely to succeed than male business owners are? She responded by referencing a quote from Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant in China:
In a recent interview he was talking about the growth of Alibaba, and where he sees everything growing in China. His response to a question about what is causing this astronomical growth rate was that it’s women. He said women business owners are creative, and they don’t look at the market as a sterile place for transactions. He said whereas men may look at the Internet and think of coding, women look at the Internet and think of cozy—they want to make it a cozy environment. They want to invite shopping and build relationships. That’s really what customers want, whether they’re men or women. So I thought that was a fascinating take on something that appears to be a very accurate assessment of the ability that women would naturally have to add to an environment. We do naturally have a cozier take on things. If you have a successful company, and you’re growing, you will find that company is growing because people who work for that company feel secure. They have that cozy environment—they want that company to grow, they feel passionate about getting results, they work together and they feel secure and stable. … So if you run your company with policies and rigidness, vs. a new way of thinking, which is to run your company with a degree of empathy, where you create a cozy environment, it just naturally grows—it’s more organic. I think the core of being a woman is something inherent, we’re built with those genes. Sometimes that’s a negative attribute, but I do think that culture of customer service is an inherent component in our minds.
I asked Eaton-Cardone in what ways it can be a negative attribute. She explained it this way:
Obviously, you can make bad business decisions because you empathize too heavily with somebody. Or maybe you aren’t charging enough for a service, because you care more about making your customers happy than making a profit. So it also takes a degree of business acumen—you have to be able to drive success so you make a profit that can feed your growth. And sometimes those are tough business decisions to make. For example, you can’t do business with a vendor that you like more if they charge too much.
To wrap up this portion of the interview, I got down to brass tacks. How, I asked Eaton-Cardone, can we get more young women to pursue careers in IT so that companies can benefit more from the contributions that women have to make? It was in her response to this question that Eaton-Cardone expanded upon what she had said earlier about women in China, explaining the role that parents in this country need to play to achieve that outcome:
I think we can learn from other countries that are successful at this without much effort, like China or India, for example. If you take a look at China, it’s nearly a 50/50 split between women and men in technology fields. What are they doing that’s different? One thing they’re doing is that parents take much more of a backseat-driver role in terms of the education of their children. In the U.S., we have a tendency to frown upon that, saying, “My 12- or 14-year-old daughter wants to be able to decide what she wants to study.” Anyone who is a parent, if they’re really honest with themselves, recognizes that at the age of 12, [children] probably don’t actually know what is the best thing that they should learn. I am so happy that I didn’t get to make the decision to take the home ec class, because I would have lost the experience that I needed. My daughter, when she goes to school, whether she likes it or not, will be taking robotics. She will be taking computer programming. She hates practicing piano every day, but it’s one of those things, you don’t know what talents or interests you’re going to have without giving things a try. I think our society has been too focused on providing as much freedom and choice to children as we can, and it’s become a bit of a liability. We’re not taking full accountability [as parents] by doing that.
I also spoke at length with Eaton-Cardone about her experience as the founder of GRT, and the culture of diversity she has created there. I’ll cover that portion of the interview in a forthcoming post.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.