Here’s an unsurprising fact about Maryland: It ranks second in the United States in the ratio of female-to-male workers in information technology (IT) occupations at 24%, according to the research report Cyberstates by CompTIA.
Locally, women who work in private technology companies, or at addresses such as The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in North Laurel are a growing segment of the workforce; nationally, while women make up almost 37% of tech workers at the entry level, that percentage drops to 30.5% at the managerial level, and declines with each incremental career advancement, according to a 2016 workplace study conducted last year by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org.

The research found that women make up only 25.4% of tech workers at the director level and 20.2% of tech workers at the vice president level. Among senior executives, women make up just 18.7% of the sector.

Among startups, the numbers grow grimmer for women. A 2015 survey by Silicon Valley Bank found that 66% of tech startups had no women on their boards, and nearly half — 46% — had no women executives at all.

So it seems that, even as women continue to grow in numbers and rise in rank in the tech workforce, they still have considerable challenges when it comes to equality in the IT sector.

Mentors Are Key

On a personal level, one way women can increase their chance for success in a tech world is by working with a mentor, said Gina Abate, president and CEO of Edwards Performance Solutions, in Elkridge.

“I had someone who helped me navigate the business world,” Abate said. “Through her actions, she taught me so very much, [such as] how to lead, effect change and mentor. Her bold actions allowed me to be bold, too, and I’ll never forget those lessons.”

As she moved through her career, Abate said, she has tried to put those lessons to good use. “Helping others realize their potential is so rewarding,” she said. “It’s amazing how you never know the impact you are having on someone else’s career until many years later.”

Mentors also have great influence on girls who are deciding whether to enter a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) career. Each year, APL hosts “Girl Power,” a STEM expo for middle and high school girls, with support from the Maryland Space Business Roundtable and the Women’s Giving Circle of Howard County.

The event features hands-on activities, demonstrations and take-home material for girls to encourage an interest in STEM careers. Girls also have the opportunity to talk to professional women in STEM careers such as aerospace, computer science, electrical engineering, geology, information technology and space mission engineering.

The Right Questions

When a young woman is able to talk to a role model, that can be a deciding factor in whether she pursues a tech-related career, said Tina Williams, president of TCecure, in Laurel.
“I think women are encouraged when they see other women working in these fields,” Williams said, “and have the opportunity to see what these fields are about in an environment where they feel at liberty to ask questions.”
She was personally attracted to cybersecurity when she watched the 1995 movie “The Net,” starring Sandra Bullock. “I took my first computer programming class around the same year that movie came out,” she said.

What’s discouraging for young women these days? “Parents and educators who embrace and reinforce stereotypes pursuant to their own limitations and experiences,” said Williams.

“Having 15 years in a technical career, I can say that there are so many opportunities within technical fields that vary in required skill sets,” she said. “In cybersecurity alone, many skill sets are needed, not just hands-on programming or hacking, but also in-depth analysis of systems or human behavior, and risk planning and management.”

Williams wants everyone to know that people other than “the stereotypical anti-social guy glued to a computer screen can be, and are currently, accomplished, valuable, cybersecurity professionals.”

Encouraging Signs

Gwen Greene, president and CEO of Fulton-based Applied Information Technology, said she believes young women have started to express more interest in what used to be male-dominated technical fields, namely cybersecurity, software programming and network administration.

“However,” Greene said, “I have also heard more young women express the need for mentorship to navigate their technical career paths.”

She recalled getting out of college and starting as a software developer. “While I liked my job, I quickly realized it wasn’t my passion.”

Feeling ambitious, Greene took any technical task she could within that company, until she acquired 11 years of technical experience. Today, she serves as a mentor to several young women by sharing her experience to help them map out their career goals in technology.

“There are definitely encouraging signs that more young women are entering technical fields,” she said, “but we need more senior women to become mentors.”