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Women in IT: The Past, the Present, and the Future

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Today, finding a woman in a management position in IT is uncommon but not unheard of. But in the past, it was a different story.


My colleague, Lorraine Cousins, CEO of Halcyon Software, is often asked about her experiences managing a technology company in what is traditionally a male-dominated industry. She has an interesting perspective, especially when she talks about the hurdles and prejudices she had to conquer in the early years to be successful. I thought it worthwhile to share her story but also to go back in time to look at some of the first women who can be acknowledged as IT pioneers in their day. Who are the top women who are today playing their part in this fast-paced industry, and what does the future hold?


Two early women scientists had a tremendous impact on the development of computers and computer science. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), an English mathematician and writer, is credited with being the founder of scientific computing and the first to create what is considered by some to be the first computer program: an algorithm encoded for processing by a machine. She worked closely with Charles Babbage, a professor of mathematics at Cambridge, who invented the "Difference Engine," an elaborate calculating machine that operated by the method of finite differences.


During World War II, many women found technical and professional jobs in industry and in the military. Chief among them was U.S. Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992), a mathematician and computer scientist who helped develop COBOL and discovered the first computer bug, a moth that had found its way into a computer and caused it to malfunction. (That's how "debugging" got its name.)


Unfortunately, despite hundreds of women being employed in early computing roles by the military in the UK in the1940s (many of them decrypting the communication messages issued by "the enemy"), by the end of the war most of them lost their jobs to returning soldiers.


Lorraine left school at 17 to join the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC) and served in Berlin during the Cold War in a specialist technology role. After six years in the army, she left and joined a government-sponsored college course in computing; at that time people were being encouraged to enter the world of IT, which was still regarded as a pioneering industry. Although very few women were taking the course she was not only successful in gaining a recognized qualification but also secured her first IT position with an international company in the food and drink manufacturing industry.


Over the next few years she gradually worked her way through a succession of computer operations, programming and data processing jobs, taking more college courses along the way. In 1983 she was promoted to Data Processing Manager, working on an IBM System 34 writing RPG II.


At the time, she was one of only a handful of woman professionals involved in IT. One of the IBM sales managers visited her one day and told her that he could count on the fingers of one hand how many female IT managers there were in Britain and even then he would have some fingers left over!


Often a client would call and ask for the IT manager and when she answered the phone, their first comment would be, "Hello, love, can I speak to your boss?" It was always a surprise when she informed the caller that she was the boss! Unfortunately, that attitude wasn't limited to customers; it was also prevalent among her co-workers and superiors. The form of discrimination ran from simply ignoring her (not inviting her to management meetings) to refusing to give her the perks the male managers were automatically awarded, such as company cars and her own office.


In 1988, pregnant with her first child, Cousins, who had a strong ambition to start her own IT company, was already researching in her spare time what kind of software tools would be most useful for business. She left her employer when she went on maternity leave and never went back. In 1989, following the UK launch of the IBM AS/400 at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, she leased a small B10 computer and installed it in the spare bedroom of her house. Cousins started her own software and consulting company developing systems management solutions for the AS/400 and the small business venture that eventually became Halcyon Software was born.


It was a scary, difficult beginning and a steep learning curve. In addition to her professional tasks, she had to learn bookkeeping, business development, governmental taxes and regulations, as well as desktop publishing (so she could produce user manuals and marketing collateral). With the birth of a second child in 1989 and a third in 1992, the economic impact of the recession in the early '90s, and the increasing demands on her time both personally and professionally, the challenges sometimes seemed overwhelming. Fortunately, she had a strong determination to succeed and was supported by her parents and husband, who had quit his job to help provide additional programming resources in the business. At one time, they had three sons under the age of five and an exhausting work schedule of seven-day work weeks, long days and nights, struggling with finances and trying to keep work and home life in balance.


But with the struggle came success and almost 25 years later, Lorraine is now CEO of an international software company specializing in monitoring, scheduling, and automation solutions for many different platforms including IBM i, Windows, AIX, and Linux. The business now has regional offices in the U.S., Europe, and Australia and a worldwide network of IBM business partners across the U.S., Europe, and Asia Pacific. She cites her biggest role model as Margaret Thatcher, who also had to overcome the challenges of being a woman in a job traditionally held by a man and the prejudices that accompanied that accomplishment.


Cousins was asked how much things have changed for women managers in the IT world. Although she doesn't see as much blatant discrimination against women, she also doesn't see much encouragement for women within the technology industry or through the educational system. She commented, "Women still feel they need to be twice as good to progress in IT as their male counterparts and are often passed over for employment or promotion. It's a conundrum: employers want to hire people with experience, and the opportunities for women to get that experience are even more limited than they are for men." Lorraine continued, "The early female computing pioneers like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper and all those women working in computing roles during the war-time years proved there is nothing in the configuration of a woman's brain that prevents them from excelling in the exciting and ever-evolving world of IT."


She is a strong advocate for internships linked to schools, perhaps supported by government grants, so that young women can get on-the-job training as well as the formal education they need to succeed and rise to managerial positions. IT and computing is now part of the national curriculum in the UK, so there is forward movement, but not enough role models go into schools and encourage girls at a young age to consider IT as a potential career. Finding mentors or champions in the workplace is also very difficult. Lorraine herself has made it a personal objective to hire and train women in IT positions, giving them the skills they need to advance themselves within the industry. Employment surveys in 2012 revealed that less than 20 percent of those working in IT are female, with that figure halving at senior IT leadership levels.


What does the future hold? There are more women in top IT positions than ever before, including Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo!. The key is to foster the relationships and develop the training mechanisms so that more women are exposed to IT and encouraged to pursue high-level positions. Lorraine takes her hat off to any woman who manages to accomplish these lofty goals.


Carole Chandler

Carole Chandler has spent more than 14 years in the IT industry as a sales and marketing professional helping technology companies get their key messages across to business customers.


In her role as sales and marketing director for Halcyon Software, Carole has visited IBM customers and partners in Europe, the U.S., Australia, and Asia Pac. She has spoken at European events and conferences and contributed to media articles on better ways to manage complex IT systems on which business depends.    


Prior to joining Halcyon, she spent 21 years in product development in the pharmaceutical and consumer goods industries working with marketing teams to develop award-winning packaging.


Originally qualifying in Chemistry, she particularly enjoys taking challenging, highly technical subjects and being able to communicate them in more effective ways. An avid learner, she enjoys leading teams and working with people to progress ideas that work for business. She is based in Peterborough, UK.



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