Standing out in IT and computing: Resources exist for young women interested in technology careers

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Erianna Jiles
Erianna Jiles, St. Paul Como Park High School
Devan Sayles
Devan Sayles, business application analyst at General Mills
“A lot of what (high school females) don’t realize is that those skills and interest can become awesome careers.” – Devan Sayles, business application analyst at General Mills

DEVAN SAYLES, A BUSINESS application analyst at General Mills, doesn’t have to look far for a mentor in her field.

Her mother was in the information technology profession, just as Sayles is. But her mom wasn’t her primary motivator.

“If she tried to influence me into going into technology,” Sayles said of her mother, “she was super sneaky about it, to the point where I don’t ever really remember her trying to tell me, ‘You should go into technology and computer science.”

Her motivation was her own personal interest: “In high school is where I really figured out, ‘Wow, I like this programming thing.’”

Sayles oversees web developers for pillsbury.com, a division of General Mills, a position in which she benefits from her background in computer science. But her career path hasn’t always been smooth.

“I don’t think the job search is the struggle; the struggle starts earlier,” she said.

Information technology is a largely male-dominated industry. However, resources and opportunities exist for young women looking to enter the field.

The percentage of women in computing fell to 26 percent in 2013 from 35 percent in 1990, according to the American Association of University Women. Certain careers have traditionally been stereotyped for certain genders, and technology seems to be one of them.

“In middle school, in high school, girls start to get this impression that technology is not for them — it’s for boys,” Sayles said.

‘CLASS ... FULL OF DUDES’

Some computer science classes in high school, as well as in college, can be full of males, and “women feel like, ‘Everyone else around me is smarter than me. I’m just this impostor,’ so they second-guess their skills and their abilities,” Sayles said.

Sayles took AP programming classes in high school, though, which “was a huge advantage,” she said. She said those classes made the transition into college easier.

She remembers her first day in her college Intro to Programming class. She walked in and noticed there were “about 100 males and only a handful of girls.” It left her thinking, “Wow, this class is full of dudes,” she said.

But the programming classes she took in high school gave her a “bit more confidence,” she said.

COMPUTING PROGRAMS FOR YOUNG WOMEN

High school programs, such as those offered by Advance IT Minnesota, help break through those gender barriers. The Minnesota Aspirations for Women In Computing Awards Program, one of Advance IT Minnesota’s programs, honors young women at the high-school level for their computing-related achievements and interests throughout the Twin Cities.

A group of high school girls from across Twin Cities and Minnesota pose for photo during Advance IT Minnesota's annual Sustaining Passion, Ambition and Resolve for Career Success (SPARCS) at Macalester College and Metropolitan State University technology camp in June. (Photo courtesy of Macalester College Dewitt Wallace Library)

Ariana Pooley, a Macalester College freshman who studies Computer Science, Mathematics and Data Science, was a 2015 national runner-up and a 2014 Minnesota runner-up in the awards program. It has opened doors for Pooley, giving her access to a community of other women.

“Before you receive the award, you might think, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough,” Pooley said. “... Then you receive the award, it’s reality — like ‘Wow, if I’m good enough to receive the award, I’m on par with everyone else.’”

Pooley says girls interested in computing should not get discouraged by feelings of inadequacy.

“Even if they [young women] feel like they’re not qualified, they should apply [to programs] anyway,” Pooley said, “because that’s a part of the reason why not as many girls are in computer science, because they don’t feel like they’re good enough.”

Russell Fraenkel, interim executive director of Advance IT Minnesota, says about 25 percent of women are actually employed or engaged in the IT industry. There’s a demand for more women, but there’s also a general talent gap in the IT field regardless of gender, he said.

“One sure way to get more people into the pipeline is just attract more women,” he said.

Many companies have more job openings than qualified applicants for positions in IT, creating more opportunities than ever for women to enter the industry. While college computer science classes remain heavily male, female coders and web developers have new resources available to them, often as early as high school.

“A lot of what (high school females) don’t realize,” Sayles said, “is that those skills and interest can become awesome careers.”

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