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.”
I asked Padir what the difference is between how the role of CTO at Progress Software is being executed now, and how it would be executed if the CTO was a man. She said it’s more about a person’s individual strengths, than about gender.
“For me, it’s really about the person in the position—their strengths, and what they bring to it,” she said. “One of the things I’ve always been interested in, and really good at, is bridging between the technical focus, and the practical business application of it. I think men are good at that, too, but that just happens to be one of my strengths.”
I told Padir that I’d found that most people I’ve spoken with on this topic agree that because men and women are wired differently, executives of each gender tend to operate differently. For example, I cited the fact that most people agree that women are more collaborative than men. She said she definitely agrees with that.
“I’ve said before, women are gatherers, and men are hunters,” Padir said. “The beauty of that is that women can bring together a whole bunch of disparate people from all across the planet with different ideas and backgrounds, and really get the best ideas moved forward—that’s how innovation happens.”
Padir went on to stress the importance of creating an environment in which good ideas aren’t going to get shot down.
“As a C-level executive in a public company, I have a big bat, and I have the power to whack stuff around if I don’t like it,” she said. Consequently, she has to be careful to ensure that people aren’t intimidated by that.
“You have to create an environment where people view you as just having a different role at the table, so they speak up and talk about their new and creative ideas,” she said. “The most creative people are not always the strongest-willed.”
Finally, I noted that there’s always been a lot of head-scratching about how to attract more women to study computer science and to pursue careers in IT, and that my own observation is that we just don’t seem to have been able to crack that code. I asked Padir if she agreed, and if so, what the bright minds at WPI are doing to crack it. She said she did agree, and that cracking the code will require a focus on attracting girls to technology from an early age. She recounted a story about being in the third grade, and bringing her report card home and showing it to her mom, who was the director of a high school math department.
“It said I was ‘good in math, for a girl.’ That was the teacher’s comment,” Padir said. “I really didn’t know what that meant, so I asked my mom, and we talked about it. But it’s that notion that early on, they’re not focusing girls on these STEM careers.”
Padir said WPI has “a bunch” of programs to attract women, like an “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” that’s geared toward girls in high school.
“I have two daughters, and I would love for them to go to WPI and become engineers,” Padir said. “It’s a matter of getting it across early that these things can be fun and interesting.”
Padir also shared her thoughts on the importance of retaining the foreign talent that comes to the United States to study in this country’s colleges and universities. I’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.