Women in Technology: Breaking Down the Barriers
Gender bias never really crept into my life in childhood. It didn’t inform the clothes I wore, the sports I played or the hobbies I chose. And so, as a young technology professional, it stunned me that people—my colleagues—looked at me differently because of my sex.
I grew up with three sisters who all played with hockey sticks and baseball bats, who climbed trees as well as any neighborhood boy and who knew that if we studied and worked hard, we could do whatever we wanted.
I recognized that people along my career path didn’t look like me, of course. I attended a predominantly female college and sat among 50 or 60 students in a 301-level Calculus class, most of them women. But only three of us made it to the 302 level.
Why Aren’t More Women in STEM?
I wondered why other young women excelled at math and science in high school, yet few of them pursued science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professions—especially when, for years, computer science seemed like a natural career choice for women. In the 1950s, a considerably smaller number of women worked overall, yet between 30% and 50% of programmers were women, according to The Atlantic.
Despite institutional barriers that kept them out of leadership roles, women maintained strong representation in a growing industry. But the number of women in technology stalled in the mid-80s, right before I started my own first job, and then began falling after that. By 2011, the percentage of women in computer science programs had dropped to 17%, according to ComputerScience.org.
I asked one classmate how she’d chosen her professional path—away from STEM—and I will never forget her answer. She’d looked at the stereotypical computer programmer and decided that she didn’t want to “be that.” Women don’t pursue careers in math outside of the classroom, she explained, so why set herself up to fail? This friend went on to become an incredible educator who I know has made a difference in countless young lives. But as much as I recognized that her path wasn’t for me, I also recognized then that my own path likely would have unique challenges.
I thought I had made it when I landed a computer programming job at a U.S. Department of Energy lab after college in 1988. Educated, inspired and full of youthful enthusiasm, I had been invited to play in a technologist’s sandbox.
Early on, while demonstrating my latest program to our lab director, a new engineer popped up outside my door. He looked flustered and couldn’t see the lab director in my office. “I’m late for a meeting,” he called in to me. “I need you to refill the copy machine immediately.”
While trying to concentrate on my presentation, my former classmate’s words echoed in my mind. Had I set myself up to fail? Other comments that peppered my experience in my new job rushed through my mind—that my gender helped to open doors for me professionally, that I was lucky to stand out as a woman.
And, hey, would I mind organizing another team lunch? From that first government job, I moved on to a progressive software company, where over and over, I heard the same mind-numbing question: “Are you technical?”
At that point, I was VP of research and development. In that job, I took action. I began working on programs that would
convene men and women to face unconscious bias. Admittedly, I was nervous about how my colleagues would respond, but they rose to the occasion. They listened. They learned. They adapted.
Women Can Make a Difference
Today, I’m proud to serve as chief technology officer at a major software company, a place where we perceive our own differences as advantages that better position us to help the social good community drive the greatest change in the world. Our reason for existence—to help good take over—means that we have the honor of providing solutions to changemakers. We serve organizations that advocate for gender equality in schools and workplaces, others that tackle poverty and hunger to ensure that children receive the basic necessities they need to learn, and others that provide underrepresented groups of people with exposure to and experience in this profession that I’ve loved my entire adult life.
Current trends, however, show the work ahead of us. WIRED reported recently that while 40% of men graduating with STEM degrees wind up working in tech, only 26% of women graduates do.
I know that I’m the exception and not the rule. But here’s a piece of research that inspires me: Microsoft recently interviewed over 6,000 girls and women across the U.S. to understand roadblocks to STEM careers.
The study found that these women and girls simply can’t picture themselves in those fields, and they want to know how they can make a difference in the world through STEM careers. I’m moved that these girls and women want to ensure that their careers make their communities better. And I want them to know that, as women in technology, they can connect people and organizations to the resources they need to tackle the world’s greatest challenges. At its core, the study offers a simple directive: Keep breaking down perceived barriers by talking about opportunities. The talent and aptitude are there, waiting for us.
Mentoring matters, and recruitment matters. We all share the responsibility to expect, demand and address the importance of an inclusive environment at our respective organizations.
No one told me how hard it would be to be a woman in technology. But I’m committed to helping other women find happiness and success in the field and telling everyone just how important it is.
Mary Beth Westmoreland is Blackbaud’s chief technology officer, responsible for leading worldwide product, technology and analytics strategy, architecture, user experience and innovation across the company’s entire solution portfolio. Mary Beth joined Blackbaud in 2008 and has over 30 years of experience in software engineering and product development.
Prior to Blackbaud, Mary Beth was VP of research and development at Ipswitch, Inc. where she led software engineering, design and operations across the company’s global product portfolio. Before Ipswitch, she spent 15 years at the Savannah River National Laboratory, where she started as a programmer and eventually managed the company’s Enterprise and Technical Systems Engineering organizations.
In both 2019 and 2017, Mary Beth was named one of the Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Technology by the National Diversity Council — a definitive list that honors the most extraordinary female leaders, influencers and achievers impacting the technology industry. She has been recognized for her leadership in Blackbaud’s transformation to a cloud software company that is innovative, agile and successful, for her mentorship of other women and for her commitment to corporate citizenship.
Mary Beth is a trustee at her alma mater, Immaculata University, where she graduated with a degree in mathematics and physics. She is also a member of the advisory board of Clemson University’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, a founding board member of Charleston Women in Tech, and is actively involved in a variety of STEM programs, Women in Technology initiatives and other nonprofits.