By Tina Jenkins Bell

“This is a man’s world” is not just a line from a James Brown song; it’s a reality that women in technology face daily. According to the U.S. Department of Labor‘s 2001 Current Population Survey (CPS), only about 30 percent of computer systems analysts, engineers, and scientists are women. The UK’s National Computing Centre reported that the percentage of women in IT has dropped from 29 percent in 1994 to 18 percent in 2001. And Japan’s employment and education statistics list the percentage of women in IT at 17 percent and say that the percentage of women employed increases as the skill level decreases.

Being in the minority can be intimidating, and women often feel excluded when news of promotions is shared, mentors seek out proteges, or internal and external opportunities for career advances and continuing education are offered.

The Association for Women in Computing (AWC) is a professional organization designed to open new avenues for women in technology. We spoke with a few members to get the inside scoop on this group.

AWC profile
Listed as one of top 10 technology organizations to join by, AWC provides an atmosphere where women can let down their guards and bare their souls, according to AWC’s national president Suford Lewis. Lewis, who is also a technology consultant in the Boston area, said she enjoys interacting with other women in technology.

“I love the feeling of walking into a technical session and finding it all or mostly women!” she said. “And I love having professional conversations with people who aren’t trying to one-up me, talk down to me, or otherwise exercise their ego at my expense.”

AWC was founded in 1978 and has 2,000 members in about 20 active chapters in 13 states plus the District of Columbia. Though AWC primarily targets women working in the United States, the group also welcomes men and has independent members living in the Philippines, England, Switzerland, and Canada.

Kristin Fitzpatrick, an AWC member with the Puget Sound chapter in Washington, said the group’s membership ranges from well-established IT professionals to career changers and students planning for high-tech careers. The one thing they have in common is a passion for technology.

“They work in a variety of IT fields, including the softer fields of marketing and project management as well as the harder fields of programming, networking, and hardware,” she said.

AWC Members pay annual chapter dues, which vary depending on the chapter. For example, members of the Puget Sound chapter pay $65 annually, while Houston participants pay $100 a year. Each chapter also supports the national organization’s administrative costs, so $15 of each member’s annual dues go to the national office. AWC is not represented in all major U.S. cities; for example, there is no chapter in Chicago. However, people living in areas where there is no AWC chapter can join as independent members for $25 annually. Other fees may include paying an admission for the monthly meetings and special events. Funds collected for attending monthly meetings usually cover food and room rental costs.

AWC objectives
AWC has these three major objectives to help women in technology:

  • Open the lines of communication and networking opportunities
  • Provide opportunities for professional development and advancement
  • Pave the roads for entry and advancement

Opening lines of communication and networking opportunities
AWC offers numerous networking methods for keeping women in technology connected, from the help desk pro to middle management to the CIO. Members can share information at monthly chapter meetings or any of three national board meetings, which surf from state to state to keep everyone apprised of national objectives and inroads.

AWC member Dawn Fitzgerald has a middle-management position in disaster recovery at BMC Worldwide, a software management company in Houston. She was working in marketing when she heard about her current position. Fitzgerald was hesitant to apply for the job because the department was staffed entirely with men, and she was coming from a support role rather than a hard-core technology position. Fitzgerald said that “senior-level” women she’d met at AWC’s meetings and seminars who had similar experiences coached her on how to confidently compete for and win the position.

National and local chapter Web sites also keep members connected. The sites promote current events and initiatives, such as scholarship funds. They also connect members and other interested parties with national and chapter officers and advertise job openings.

Lewis said that AWC’s Web sites and e-mail help erase geographic borders and form networks within and beyond chapters. For example, AWC can help job-seekers with relocation plans.

“If you are visiting or relocating to San Francisco, we can put you in touch with the people who can help you in that area,” Lewis said. “Our mission is the same in any state you go into, and our chapters are close; they communicate with each other.”

Professional development
Professional development seminars expose members to everything from developments in unilateral operating systems to smart career tactics for moving from a support position to a management role. Members can also pick up valuable continuing education (CE) units for certifications or employment-based requirements.

Dr. Clarisse B. Molad, a professor and e-business specialist at the University of Phoenix, Houston campus, said the technology industry is experiencing a flat job market, and daily advances in the industry cause skills to become obsolete in under 24 months. AWC seminars serve as a career lifeline to keep members—employed or unemployed—current on what’s going on in the corporate market and the industry.

Paving roads for entry and advancement
In an effort to “lift up and reach back,” AWC offers a number of initiatives and scholarships to build interests in computing among youth, from elementary-age students to those in college. Additionally, four of AWC’s 20 chapters are college-based.

As for advancement, AWC at national and chapter levels host events that recognize women achievers in technology. Every fall, AWC national hosts the Augusta Ada Lovelace Award and Banquet to recognize women who demonstrate outstanding technical achievements and have a record of extraordinary service to the computing community on behalf of women.

Each chapter also sponsors an event to honor female high technology achievers. For the past five years, the Houston chapter has hosted the Top Houston Women in Technology, an “after-five” event and fundraiser, which helps raise scholarship funds to pave the road for a new generation of women who choose technology as their career.

Molad said AWC began the event five years ago to enhance the visibility of women in technology and to provide role models to its constituency.

“No one was giving these women any recognition for being top in their world, a world in which they were far from being the majority,” Molad said. “We wanted to create an event for them that would make them shine. They, in return, became the core group to bring us corporate sponsorships and speakers to our various events.”

Women in technology

Has it become easier for women to excel and advance in the tech sector? Do you feel accepted by your male peers? Share your experiences by posting to the discussion below.