DETROIT, April 26, 2001 — Melissa Rian wasnt sure how many chairs to set up for the official launch of the Southeast Michigan chapter of Women in Technology International (WITI) earlier this month.
Rian, her colleagues at Microsofts Great Lakes District office in suburban Detroit, and other women had registered 150 technology professionals to attend the new WITI chapters first event — a panel discussion with women holding senior technology positions with top automobile manufacturers. Rian had been told to expect that less than a fifth of those who registered would actually attend. The results were surprising:
“We had 160 people show up, including a few men,”
Rian says with a chuckle.
“It was amazing.”
Amazing, perhaps, but not surprising given the strong desire expressed by women across the technology industry to reach out and connect with one another. At Microsoft, their wishes have not gone unheard.
Women represent 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce, yet comprise 29 percent of the technology sector workforce, according to a study released in 2000 by the White House Council of Economic Advisors.
One solution lies with Women in Technology International, a national organization founded in the Silicon Valley in 1989. Today, WITI has a foundation that works proactively with industry leaders to help women develop core competencies and brings women to the attention of organizations and boards looking for talent. WITI programs include the WITI Hall of Fame, Women in Science and Technology Month, Take Your Children On the Internet Week and WITI 4Hire, a Web-based job database for members and employers.
The keys to fueling the enthusiasm of the organizers of WITIs Southeast Michigan chapter are national and regional conferences that bring members together with corporate leaders on a regular basis.
“Our first event was extremely motivational,”
says Amber Sitko, a Microsoft consultant with nine years of technology-industry experience.
“Just at that one event, there were a lot of opportunities for women in this field to grow and find new experiences. There were opportunities to network and for women to connect with other women for inspiration and motivation.”
Rian is equally enthusiastic about the chapters potential to bring together women who are at various stages in their careers in the technology industry.
“Personally, I value this as a way to meet other women in similar situations,”
“Its good to meet women who are just entering the field, like I was three or four years ago and offer them any help I can. Its also an opportunity to connect with women who can help me out in areas where Im lacking.”
For Joel Graves, diversity is more than a concept on a list of corporate goals and objectives and mission statements. Graves, a senior technical recruiting account manager for Microsofts Great Lakes District, thinks diversity is as essential as the nuts and bolts in the automobiles that roll off assembly lines throughout the Detroit area.
“Diversity is a core value that defines Microsofts business practices and operating philosophy,”
“A more diverse work force makes for better decision making and a varied approach to product development. Simply put, we need more women in our technical division.”
Perceptions about the technology industry are key, Graves says.
“People tend to think that the IT industry is this geeky hobby area, and some think thats not necessarily of interest to a lot of women,”
The Great Lakes District is, says Graves,
“a very small part of Microsoft, but even here weve managed to match women up with one another for mentoring. The percentage of women on our technical staff is small, but were constantly trying to improve upon that. Microsoft is truly committed to that, and the entire industry needs to be.”
Laying the Foundation
The most logical place to influence an individuals career path is at the beginning. Microsoft is sponsoring one-year memberships in the WITI chapter for college students and women who are new to the field.
“This is an excellent way to learn the dos and don’ts of this field,”
says Kristina Uptain, a project manager for an automotive supplier. Uptain, who earned a graduate degree in 1999, attended the April event and immediately signed up to serve on two committees.
“This is a great way to learn from more senior professionals and to stay on top of whats new in technology. When youre working 10 to 12 hours a day, you get out of touch with whats new, but with such a large association you can get a different perspective on new technologies.”
Uptain says her primary interest is in reaching out to younger women to show them whats possible.
“To succeed in this field you need to have a passion for what you do, good time management skills, persistence and an interest in technology, none of which are specific to either gender,”
“When I was in junior high school, two female executives came in and showed us that technology is not dull. I want to go out and do the same thing.”
For Heidi Bragg, a student majoring in management-information systems at nearby Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, WITI has opened her eyes to new career possibilities.
“I think its great that theyre sponsoring students,”
“I went to the first event and met three women who have pretty significant positions with local companies. For me it was great to see that there are opportunities for women in the field, and that the glass ceiling does not exist.”
Bragg says shes drawn inspiration to stick with school and pursue technology as a career from her father, an engineer, and from female professors who have taught her.
“Ive learned along the way that you can accomplish anything you want to, no matter if youre male or female,”
“This group is a great way to make women aware of whats available in the field.”
Increasing awareness is a top priority for a Microsoft recruiter Graves.
“I think things are improving for the younger generations because the kids are exposed to technology right from the start,”
Organizations like WITI, Graves says, can play a key role.
“I think WITI will help women throughout the industry work together for advancement,”
“Its been exciting to play a part in it, although 100 percent of the credit goes to the women who organized it.”