In order to attract more women into the STEM professions, it’s essential to broaden the STEM conversation to focus more on entrepreneurship and innovation, and to lift the discussion beyond such negative dimensions as glass ceilings and pay disparity.
That’s the advice of Nicole McMackin, president of Irvine Technology, an IT staffing and technology services provider in Irvine, Calif. In an interview earlier this week, McMackin, an outspoken advocate for women in technology who sits on the CEO board of her alma mater, the University of California at Irvine, said she has spoken with several of the deans there about the need to broaden the STEM conversation:
If you look at where the STEM fall-off is, it’s happening right as girls are moving into high-school age. In my personal opinion, based on a lot of research and studying, and being an entrepreneur myself in the technology industry, STEM is a part of the conversation, but what is still lacking in that conversation is entrepreneurship and innovation—solving real problems. This is where the jobs are going to be, but no one is having that real conversation, even at the university level, which I’ve pitched to UC Irvine over and over and over again.
You have these young adults in a learning environment, but when they graduate, the majority of universities don’t track where they go. They need to do a better job of that for a variety of reasons, including endowments. Universities are one of the only entities that don’t track how their product is doing. We’ve had many conversations around this, and universities feel their job is to educate, not to ensure that their graduates are placed in a particular position.
To a certain degree, I agree with that. But I also think that we as individuals and business owners in the community, coupled with the university, do have the responsibility to make sure that not only are people educated coming out of the university system, but that they understand what types of jobs are available; and that they’re spoken to as young children growing up about being an entrepreneur, about making a difference, and about solving real-world problems.
STEM is not talking about that. STEM is talking about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but what we’re lacking is, what are you going to do with that? What can you do that’s exciting? That’s where we get the gender fall-off. The conversations that we’re having are not geared toward entrepreneurship around women and young girls.
I noted that there’s been a lot written about the gender confidence gap, and I asked McMackin if she agrees that such a gap exists, and if so, what she would attribute it to. Her response:
I would agree with that. I get interviewed quite a bit, and the question that people often ask first is what I attribute my success to in breaking through the glass ceiling. I always respond, because I 100 percent believe this, that I never saw a glass ceiling, so I never gave myself an excuse not to rise to the top. The more women hear about their inability to move forward in the business world, or about gaps in pay, the more likely you are to give yourself an excuse. That’s where the lack of confidence comes from. You have to be willing to follow your dream, at any cost. You have to be a risk taker. If you’re averse to risk, and putting yourself out on the line, it’s very difficult to move up in those roles.
Turning my exchange with McMackin to the challenges tech companies face in recruiting and retaining female employees, I mentioned that in a recent interview about women in IT I asked Monica Eaton-Cardone, founder and CIO of Global Risk Technologies and another outspoken advocate for women in IT, what letter grade she’d give her own company in terms of gender diversity. I noted that Eaton-Cardone responded that her company is average, so she’d give it a C—the problem being simply that there are so few female applicants. I asked McMackin for her thoughts on that, particularly in her capacity as president of an IT staffing company. She said she certainly understood where Eaton-Cardone was coming from, because her own company has the same problem:
We do not see female applicants coming through in numbers equal to men. It’s especially interesting in technology, because it’s not just American males that women are competing against. Many foreigners are coming into the United States with very specific IT skills—many of them are coming from the Philippines and India, and it’s very male-dominated.
Really only in the last few years has STEM become something that’s been talked about and pushed, and you don’t see many women applying for jobs. What you see even less of is women in CEO, CIO, director roles. Some companies in southern California do a very good job of that, but for many of them, the applicants just aren’t available.
If you look at boards of directors throughout the United States, we’re gradually getting more women. But the challenge there is a lot of the same women are serving on a variety of boards. It’s not that companies aren’t trying; it’s not that my company isn’t doing everything possible—obviously, I’m the president of the company, and I’m a huge advocate for women. We just can’t recruit them because they’re not available.
I referred to an article in the Orange County Register in April about high housing costs in Orange County, in which a female employee at Irvine Technology spoke about moving to Texas and being able to keep her job and work remotely. So I asked McMackin if there’s any connection between the remote work option and recruiting and retaining female employees in particular. She said there absolutely is:
Women play dual roles in our society. My husband and I have equal professional positions and roles in our companies, but when the children are sick, I go to school to pick them up. When the children have to go to the dentist, I take them. As a mother, I want to fill that dual role. So allowing top producers to work remotely and have a flexible schedule enables your company to retain the best employees.
Employees become extremely loyal, and the employee satisfaction level remains extremely high in our company. So in my opinion, it’s a win-win. I know that Marissa Mayer up at Yahoo cut remote working for technologists, and think that hurt her and Yahoo—I think they lost quite a bit of their work force because of it, and I think diversity probably suffered in that. … There are many people who work exceedingly well remotely, and I’m not willing to lose an A+ employee because she needs to work a flexible work week, or she needs to work remotely. I’m open to working around that—especially when you’re looking to create a culture of diversity.
Finally, I asked McMackin what her single most important piece of advice is for a young woman considering a career in IT. She said her advice is to think bigger than IT:
Don’t think coding, developing, business architecture. Think project management. Think how you’re going to deliver solutions. Five years ago, we never heard of Uber or Lyft. Look at technology, and see the larger picture. Be a dreamer, and have enough guts to realize your dream.
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.