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Women's History Month: Thoughts on My History as a Woman in Technology

Marian Cook

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With International Women's Day just past, I have been reflecting on my career in technology, how much I enjoy it, and how I am now no longer the only woman in the room.

The gender gap in IT, however, persists. The Atlantic article, "We Need More Women in Tech: The Data Prove It" notes three main issues.


"We've done lots of research on why young women don't choose tech careers, and number one is they think it's not interesting. Number two, they think they wouldn't be good at it. Number three, they think they will be working with a number of people that they just wouldn't feel comfortable or happy working alongside."


None of that resonates with me. Computers never seemed off limits. My father was a mathematician at Argonne National Labs and worked on one of the first computers in the nation. When I visited him, I played with computer paper punch tapes as a kid.

Margaret Butler, a pioneering mathematician and computer scientist, was a family friend. I never thought technology was for only men, only interesting to men, unfeminine, or something I couldn't be good at. It never occurred to me.

When PCs were introduced to the market, my dad made sure we were the first family on the block to have one. I loved that clunker. It never occurred to me not to.

Many of my boyfriends were nerds, and we often did nerdy things together. Trekkies do attract Trekkies after all.

So you can see how this background opened my eyes to the opportunities. Or perhaps never closed them.

Are my career experiences different than men in technology? Yes, and I have seen tremendous changes. Things that happened years ago are becoming less and less common. But lest we forget the past, let me tell you about mine . . .

Early in my career as a manufacturing systems engineer with IBM, I literally didn't drink coffee for six years. Any time I got near the coffee pot, everyone expected me to serve them. So I just stayed away.

I am not kidding.

A factory I worked in had some nasty porn posted prominently on the walls.

Not. Kidding.

I have rejected cat-calls and wandering hands.

Yep.

I once had a job where I had great performance reviews, more clients, and higher client satisfaction ratings than my male peers, and trained men that then got promoted faster than I did. I, in a spirit of casual curiosity and gradual awakening, brought these puzzling facts up to my boss.

Darned if I didn't get promoted two weeks later.

Why didn't I quit? That didn't occur to me either. The job was interesting, I enjoyed my colleagues, and it paid well. I had a thick skin and a great sense of humor. And, since mentoring is frequently cited as a make-or-break advantage, especially for women, I should point out I was paired with a nationally recognized woman engineer to guide me.

To pay it forward, I have always given generously to organizations and opportunities to help women move forward. I have had leadership positions on women's technical professional associations like WITI, and been involved on business, mayoral, and gubernatorial boards and task forces to encourage women in technology and business.

So, getting back to The Atlantic article, I grew up thinking technology was interesting, it would be a good career for me, and I would get to work with Trekkies and people like Margaret Butler. Adding in my female mentor and thick skin surely helped. Had any of those been missing, who knows?

Things have changed. I can drink coffee with the boys without worry, and I have made up for lost time and caffeine on that one. We also now know what behavior is acceptable and not, and can call someone on it.

That is real progress.

Now will someone please get me a cup of coffee?

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Marian Cook is currently a solutions principal for Slalom Consulting, as well as the head facilitator for MIT's blockchain certification course and a strategic advisor to the Chicago Blockchain Center. Immediately prior, she was the chief strategy officer for Innovation and Technology for the State of Illinois, having moved from the private sector to public service in 2015.

She started as a systems engineer with IBM, re-engineering processes, implementing systems, and creating business and technology strategies. Moving to international consulting firms, she worked globally, developing business growth and turnaround strategies, as well as the client side as the head of IT for a top healthcare organization.

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