Why every IT woman can benefit from a peer network

When I started college at Bowling Green State University in the fall of 1978, I was among a large group of women majoring in computer science. Although today there are far fewer women nationwide who choose that field, at the time, about 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the students in my class were female. The women’s movement was alive and well, and the demand for computer programmers was so high that employers didn’t care what gender you were. The year I graduated, computer science programs nationwide reported record numbers of female graduates.

The climate for women in IT remained strong as I entered the field as a computer programmer in the early 1980s. As I worked my way up the IT chain, however, things began to change. I discovered that I was among only a handful of women in the top ranks, and it wasn’t uncommon to be the only woman in a meeting. I began to notice that I didn’t have the same type of camaraderie with my male co-workers that I once shared with my female co-workers. I could still share ideas with men, but there were some topics I didn’t feel comfortable discussing, such as juggling child care responsibilities or finding time to work out at the gym. I figured this was just one of the prices that had to be paid for success in IT.

Despite this, I neglected seeking out the company of other women in the field. I figured I simply didn’t have the time, and my career felt so stable that I never thought I might move to a different company or pursue a new field. But several years later, I was introduced to the concept of peer networking and the power it could hold for women. There are a variety of ways to network, and I’ve become familiar with a few specific types. Here’s a look at the benefits they offer.

1. Formal networking groups. These organized groups meet regularly and provide a career-oriented agenda and an excellent way to make contacts in the industry. There are a variety of local, regional, national and international IT groups from which to choose. I belong to Women in Technology International and a central Indiana group called Women & High Tech.

Joining formal groups allows you to meet amazing and powerful women and hear from some of the top female leaders in the field. The leadership opportunities within such groups are also a great benefit. Any formal networking group is worthwhile, but groups designed for women explore topics from a female point of view. Subjects such as how best to create a work/life balance if you’re a 70-hour-a-week CIO often take on an entirely different meaning for women than they do for men.

2. Informal networking groups. These aren’t part of an established organization and can meet on whatever schedule the members choose. I’m part of a group that formed unexpectedly when one of the members was writing an article about high-powered women in IT. She wanted to get a group of senior women in IT in Indianapolis together to talk over dinner, and we enjoyed the conversation so much that more than six years later, we still meet and have invited other women to join in.

We don’t have an agenda; we talk about anything on our minds — jobs, dreams, families, hobbies, whatever. Some members are still in IT, and some, like me, have moved to other careers. The members have all been in the trenches and can understand the challenges, frustrations and rewards of CIOs. We feel comfortable sharing ideas and getting advice on jobs and even on how and why to change careers. I can’t tell you how important my group was to me when I made my latest career change from CIO to professor. Even though we are all busy professionals, we make our dinner meetings a priority.

3. Affinity groups. These types of networks are made up of people at your company who share a common interest, not necessarily the same type of job. When I was vice president of IT and CIO at Cummins, I led a group that included all the women from the company — executives, managers, programmers, human resources professionals, marketers and secretaries. I had the opportunity to connect with women I might never have met in the course of my job as an executive.

Recently, I was reconnected with a marketing and HR employee at Cummins whom I’d met in the affinity group, and thanks to her, we are helping to develop a science camp co-sponsored by Purdue University and Cummins. Affinity groups also allow women who don’t have management roles to take on more responsibility in the organization. These groups can be especially beneficial to those looking to move into a different assignment in the company or perhaps a different career. Even if you have no intention of leaving your job, affinity groups make it easier to make contacts on the inside to share ideas and get things done.

4. One-on-one mentoring. Even though a mentoring relationship isn’t really a peer network, I would highly recommend having a mentor or being a mentor. Each is rewarding in its own way, both personally and professionally. I’ve served as a mentor to both men and women through the years — in formal and informal capacities — and am still contacted by young people seeking career advice. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to make the career move to academia was to have the chance to work closer with, and offer my insights to, young people.

Oddly enough, although I’ve had several mentors, none has been a woman. One of the most significant was a male high school teacher who taught a computer class. I worked for him grading papers (he was legally blind). He had worked at IBM in the 1950s and was always talking about how computer careers were rewarding and lucrative. He convinced me that computers would be a good career for me. That led me to reject my guidance counselor’s advice to go to vocational school, and instead I applied to college. He even helped me with the application and financial aid process. Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Although many women in IT — especially in the upper ranks — have very little spare time, I’ve found that peer networking is worth the time you invest in it. I’ve always felt that I get much more out of networking groups than I put in.

My advice as a former CIO is simple: Seek out groups, and if you don’t find one you like, start one of your own. Being part of a peer networking group might be the best career move you ever make.

Gail Farnsley, formerly vice president of IT and CIO at Cummins Inc., is a visiting professor in the Department of Computer and Information Technology at Purdue University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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