LOS ANGELES — Women can forge careers in technology by following their passions, being more assertive and working harder, but organizational and cultural constructs must further change to improve equity, four female panelists told a predominantly male audience of more than 200 during day two of the Los Angeles Digital Government Summit.
The gender disparity didn’t go unnoticed among five participants in the “Women in Leadership” panel on Wednesday, Aug. 30.
The women shared their own struggles to illustrate that while it’s entirely possible to be very successful in tech, more officials must see the value in onboarding young, female voices — and reverse a noticeable drop in technology education.
“It’s frustrating to me that we even have to have this panel,” said panelist Lauren Burnell, chief information security officer and director of engineering at PCM-G, an IT products and services provider to the federal government, noting that women generally have more to “prove up front” in technical careers.
In the future, fewer women are likely to even graduate college with technology-related degrees, said panelist Jeanne Holm, deputy CIO and assistant general manager for the city of Los Angeles.
When she graduated from college, 37 percent of the people in her computer science classes were women, Holm said, pointing out that her son, who attends the University of California at Santa Barbara, has informed her that women constitute only about 17 percent of students in his computer science classes.
“It’s been cut in half in those years when we think it should be expanding,” Holm told the audience.
Burnell, Holm and fellow panelists Lea Deesing, chief innovation officer of Riverside, and Alissa Johnson, chief information security officer (CISO) and vice president at Xerox Corp., recounted their own unique triumphs and tribulations as women in technology.
Burnell, a former U.S. Navy information/cryptologic warfare officer who’d specialized in IT and cyberspace solutions, said other Navy women informed her early on that if she rose to a position of leadership, she’d be perceived or portrayed as either aggressive or assertive, or promiscuous.
“Because we as a culture still have so few female leaders … I think we have a tendency to think, ‘Well, I had a bad experience with a female leader.’ And it sticks,” she said.
Deesing, who is also executive director of 501(c)3 nonprofit SmartRiverside, recalled using her nascent decoding knowledge as a girl to unlock a “secret” message in TigerBeat magazine, from then-teen heartthrob Scott Baio. She said in response to a comment from Burnell that passion was her “secret sauce.”
“I don’t think we should be afraid to show that. And I think we should use that to our advantage,” Deesing said, recounting how she became a coder at age 16 and took the first related class her high school offered.
Holm said one of her key strengths is a strong belief in diversity, which “comes in all sorts of flavors,” and described a varied career path that included time teaching around the world and founding an organization with members of the Kennedy family centered on open data in Africa.
It all has had a technology focus, Holm said, and “not just technology for technology’s sake, but how can we lift up voices and bring empowerment and diversity to all the challenges we have?”
Johnson, the former deputy CIO for the White House, said the path to leadership is different for everyone. But for her, competition has always been a driver — motivating her to earn a Ph.D. after learning that a high school classmate had a doctorate.
Guided by moderator Amanda Daflos, chief of the Office of Innovation, Performance and Transformation for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, the panelists shared earnest advice to women in tech and those contemplating careers.
Burnell said men tend to be better at projecting authority and confidence, and are more comfortable being assertive — but leadership is something anyone can wield provided they practice it.
“Leadership is a muscle and it’s something that has to be practiced and developed,” she said advising those not comfortable with leaning in to “practice it.”
Deesing agreed with Burnell that emotion and passion are and should be seen as strong points.
Johnson — who said calling herself “Dr. J” sometimes disappoints people expecting to meet the former basketball star Julius Erving — recommended women work on their negotiating skills and said there’s no resume for a perfect leader.
“A leader can be emotional, a leader can be nurturing, a leader can have all these attributes. It’s not, ‘Do I fit in with Xerox?’ It’s, ‘Does Xerox fit in with me?’” she said.
Holm urged women in tech to be “champions of change,” and leaders everywhere to loop in younger talent and rising stars, adding that some of her agency’s best ideas have come from interns.
Women can find rewarding tech careers, panelists agreed, but more change is still necessary to make the field open and attractive.
“I really think it falls to each and every one of us to take a hard look at our own organizational team and start thinking about how you start that conversation,” Holm said, calling on those present to work with tech support groups like DIY Girls and Black Girls Code, “because each of you has the ability to change that conversation."
Echoing the event’s keynote speaker H. James Dallas, who addressed attendees on Tuesday, Aug. 29, Johnson said motivation and aptitude coupled with opportunity can absolutely replace a technical degree.
“It’s really exposing our youth, it’s exposing others outside our industry to other things that can happen,” Johnson said.
Education — particularly Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses — is vital, Deesing said.
“People are leaving the industry," she said. "I think it’s all our responsibilities to build those numbers back up. We need to get young girls interested in STEM."