A TV program based on Liz Ryan’s life would quickly be dismissed as being too unrealistic. After all, who would believe a story about a successful entrepreneur, former corporate executive, author, and popular speaker who is also mother to five young children and sings opera professionally in her spare time? You can believe it of Ryan, who is all of those things.
She is also the driving force behind WorldWIT, a global, online community of e-mail discussion lists for women in technology and business. She launched the Web site for women in technology in 1999 because she believed “smart women should know each other.” Today there are 50 WorldWIT chapters nationwide and over 15,000 members.
Christa Sorenson, who operates Sorenson Consulting and is a WorldWIT contributor, isn’t surprised that Ryan has been able to make WorldWIT a popular and successful site.
“Liz is an amazing networker [with] an incredible ability to talk to complete strangers and …within a few minutes, find out that they both grew up in the same town or her brother knew the other person's sister or somehow they both know someone in common,” Sorenson said. “Liz is great at figuring out her ‘six degrees’ connection to others. She remembers everyone she meets, as well as their children's names and where they grew up. This networking ability has made Liz a natural at building WorldWIT.”
Ryan hopes that WorldWIT and similar efforts will encourage and assist more women who want to become IT professionals. Gartner reported that “women at present represent only 9 percent of IT professionals, and their enrollment is dropping in advanced-degree programs in computer science, engineering, and mathematics.”
“You can use any of WorldWIT’s lists to talk about ‘employability’ or your job search, to find contacts, get advice, share ideas, and generally get and give support to other women in business and technology,” Ryan said.
The road to WorldWIT
Ryan began her career at Chicago’s Recycled Paper Products but accepted a position at U.S. Robotics (now 3Com) as a technology executive during that company’s growth period in the '90s. After she left U.S. Robotics, she was able to take a breather. Well, sort of. Ryan, a mother of three with one on the way at the time, began a home networking startup and served as a consultant to other technology startups.
The idea that became WorldWIT was formulated at a “Moms and Tots” class where Ryan met other professional women who were interested in technology and wanted a way to network and find support. In response, Ryan launched ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology), a networking and e-mail discussion group that offered a forum where women in the technology field, or women who wanted to be in the technology field, could share information and advice and get help reaching their career and personal goals. A few months later, in response to demand from women working in Massachusetts’ bustling technology corridor, Ryan launched MassWIT. Other chapters quickly followed (50 at last count) and joined together under the name WorldWIT. The initiative has now expanded to Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Ryan runs WorldWIT while raising four children (a fifth is on the way) with her husband in Boulder, CO.
TechRepublic: Do you believe women in IT face more obstacles than men do?
Ryan: Yes, I think women face obstacles that men don’t encounter in IT—starting with the fact that there are many, many fewer women in engineering and computer science programs than there are men. This is changing—but very slowly. I think there is still a sense that technical work is “men’s work,” and I hear from tremendous numbers of women who still feel that they have to prove themselves for far longer than men do, in technical roles. However, I think women thrive when and if they reach managerial roles in technical organizations
TechRepublic: Unemployment in the IT sector has reached a 10-year high. Will women be more affected by this than men?
Ryan: While I doubt that companies will consciously reduce their staffs in a way that disadvantages women particularly, I do see women being disproportionately hurt by the recent rounds of layoffs. One factor is the special arrangements (flex-time, flex-place) that many working mothers have carved out for themselves in their organizations. When companies downsize, often these kinds of “special cases” are the first people to be cut. Also, women are overrepresented in “staff” positions in many industries, including information technology: There are many more women in finance, human resources, and other noncore functions than there are in key engineering roles, for instance. Staff roles are always hard hit during a downturn.
TechRepublic: Do you have suggestions for women (and men) who work in the technology field on how to ensure their job security, i.e., certain training or specific actions to take?
Ryan: Yes. While there’s no surefire safeguard against being laid off, there are some things you can do to gauge your own vulnerability to a layoff and cement your position a little more strongly. The first thing you do, whether your company has already had layoffs or there is just talk about them, is to sit down with your manager and talk about your role in the group. Are you viewed as indispensable, or is your position one that any number of people could do? You need to really understand your standing in terms of the “lifeboat” analogy (you know—if there were limited room in the lifeboat, who would your manager pick to keep on board?).
Then, react to that feedback. Is there a new skill or programming language you should know; could you be better versed on some of the projects going on around you; are there ways you can branch out to make yourself more valuable on the team? This won’t help you much if the next layoff is a month away, but, in general, it’s always good to keep looking at how to add value to your own role.
TechRepublic: Are there certain types of jobs women choose most frequently in the IT sector?
Ryan: On our WorldWIT discussion lists, we have about 15,000 members who are women in and around the “digital economy.” We have many more women in technical marketing, product management, Web design, and management roles than in, for instance, hardware design or software testing. These are some of the traditional male positions. I do think there is room for women to rethink their choices, but my bias is for women to do what they feel drawn to—whether that’s a creative role, a project management role, or whatever.
TechRepublic: Speaking of doing whatever you’re drawn to, we can’t let you go without asking about this opera thing.
Ryan: After high school I headed to the Manhattan School of Music to study voice performance; I'm a soprano. Eventually I got a more conventional degree in business and then one in communications studies, but I've kept singing opera and started a traveling opera troupe in Chicago, which toured around a seven-state area in the Midwest. I sing the Mimi-Tosca-Fiordiligi sorts of roles; my voice category is what's known as Full Lyric. Now that I’m in Boulder, I need to get busy and start an opera company, because there is none here!
Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.