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Still few in numbers, women in the channel find open doors

Women continue to be underrepresented in the channel and the broader STEM workforce, but are making inroads in telecom and managed services.

Women in the channel are making strides, but continue to be underrepresented in executive roles, an anecdotal finding that mirrors national statistics on women in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce.

While to a lesser degree than in the past, women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce, with the greatest disparities occurring in engineering, computer science and the physical sciences, according to the 2014 National Science Foundation Science and Engineering Indicators.

Women accounted for only 26.1% of computer and mathematical occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Women in the Labor Force: A Databook report, which was published in December 2014.

Within the channel, some female executives report seeing slightly more of their counterparts at conferences, although the industry is still heavily skewed toward men.

"When you attend the ITW [International Telecoms Week] tradeshow, it's still highly evident it is very heavily concentrated on men," observed Heather Selbert, vice president of operations at American Telesis, a wide-area network (WAN) solution provider. "I had a moment at a show earlier this month and thought, 'Wow, two women for every 10 men.' Overall … as an industry it's still led by men in many ways, but I don't see barriers to women in the channel in any way -- in fact, I kind of see them welcomed," she said.

Selbert doesn't believe telecommunications is a well-known industry for either women or men looking to get into IT careers since it is a niche field. "I don't think it's something people know about until you're well into your career. I fell into it; I didn't know it existed."

There is slightly more visibility now that companies like Cisco offer classes and certifications, she added, and believes telecom is a field women should focus on.

"Women do exceptionally well in this industry, in part, because of their ability to communicate. It's such a technical field and I can't tell you how many times I've walked through my NOC [network operations center] and my engineer is talking to someone in the field and he's saying what he's thinking and the guy in [the] field is saying what he's thinking" and neither understands the other, she said.

"Women aren't necessarily afraid of using an acronym and we communicate -- sometimes ad nauseam -- and that allows us to be very effective," Selbert said. "I just don't think women are channeled into this field."

Women in the channel forge alliances

Joy Beland, managing partner of LA IT Girl, which provides network support and IT consulting services to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), said she got into the industry by accident after working as a business consultant for 18 years.

"I realized the potential for growing my business would increase dramatically if I added computer consulting into my wheelhouse," she explained, and then segued into becoming a managed service provider.

Beland has been helped along the way by aligning with three vendors that she said changed how she conducted business: ConnectWise, which provides a cloud-based tool that helps her store all the information about her business; Continuum, which she uses for remote monitoring and management; and CharTec, which provides a training academy for MSP owners. Beland said the academy taught her how to sell managed service contracts and tie in all of the tools she uses.

"The most valuable thing I've learned was the perspective that I need to be a business owner and not a computer technician," Beland said. "I'm a very small MSP, but my clients don't need to know I only have a few people working for me -- but that I provide a full scope of services and compete in a much bigger arena."

Beland views herself as "very much an anomaly as an MSP owner," but said she sees a lot more women showing up at trade shows and conferences, and has been able to find a few other women who are owners or co-owners of channel companies.

"I think we're becoming more visible, but still the vast majority are men. I'm fine with that; I never felt it was something to my detriment."

Echoing Selbert, Beland said she instead finds it to be a big advantage because clients and potential clients have told her "how refreshing it is for a woman to come in and talk to them about their technology."

Like Beland, Gayle Rose, founder and CEO of EVS Corp., a data backup and disaster recovery firm geared at SMBs, has a background in business, having worked in finance, but also had "some computer technology experience in the early days of computing."

About 10 years ago, Rose was approached by a young female engineer who had the idea for a disaster recovery/business continuity/data backup business and the two founded EVS. It was a win-win since she had the business experience and the capital, and the female engineer had the technology background, Rose said.

"Anecdotally, it is very rare to see a woman in a CEO role in computing," she noted. "It's [also] very rare to find women in technical roles."

Rose sits on the MIS Advisory Board of the University of Memphis and said "there is a dearth of women" in computer science and engineering majors.

At an annual data backup software conference for value-added resellers and MSPs that she attends in Toronto, Rose said "often there are only two of us in a room of men."

Lately, she has seen more women attending the conference, but they tend to be heads of marketing and sales. In the 10 years she has been at EVS, Rose said she has had one woman engineer, who was also African American.

Rose hasn't found it difficult to secure capital as a woman but believes it is in general, "because women tend to not be as networked in the business world or they're … not connected to the sources of money that provide capital. Women in business need to be better networked."

Ingram Micro is trying to do its part. The global technology and supply chain services provider developed an annual Ingram Micro Women in Technology event. The goal of the event is "to fuel conversations about diversity in the workplace, professional development and evangelizing the amazing opportunity found in this fast-paced, innovative industry," between Ingram Micro's leadership and channel partners, said Jennifer Johnson, senior director of marketing.

I think the most important thing is that you align yourself with people who do well in [the] industry, find mentors and set goals.
Joy Belandmanaging partner, LA IT Girl

While GigaOm reports that the average ratio of men to women at the 12 leading tech firms is 68/32, Johnson said "Ingram Micro is above this industry average -- a fact we are very proud of given our advocacy and dedicated efforts around diversity in the workforce and women in tech."

Encouraging women to join STEM workforce

The good news is there are programs and scholarships geared at encouraging women to pursue jobs in STEM fields. Rose said her goddaughter is attending University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall and won a STEM scholarship.

Yet, at the same time, she believes there are fewer women entering the STEM workforce and establishing careers. "The business school percentage of women has stayed flat while the percentage of women in the population has gone up, so it would not surprise me that that would carry over to STEM," Rose said. It is important to get girls interested in STEM as early as elementary school and then carry it from middle school into high school, she said. It is also critical to ensure young women are mentored in careers that are perceived as non-traditional, Rose stressed.

In 2014, the University of California at Berkeley reported more women than men were enrolled in a computer science course for the first time, Johnson noted. Yet, she added that a recent survey by Girl Scouts of America indicated that only 13% of female teens say a STEM-related career would be their first choice. That number doesn't improve on down the educational pipeline, with statistics showing only 15% of freshman women at American colleges plan to declare a STEM major, compared to 29% of men, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, which cited Higher Education Research Institute findings.

Selbert said her biggest hiring challenge is finding people with good communications and problem-solving skills. Once they are brought into the company they can be taught about WANs and routers, she said. "We get women when we do it that way. Predominantly, I do think that's the case" that women come with more soft skills. "Men in this field are often very technical and very bright but the tendency for those uber bright guys is they're not great at communication skills."

Beland, meanwhile, said women should not be daunted at the idea of owning an MSP business.

"As with any industry, what you're bringing to it and how you utilize your resources" is what matters. "I think the most important thing is that you align yourself with people who do well in [the] industry, find mentors and set goals. If women are smart enough to do those things they will excel."

Next Steps

Read about the STEM skills shortage

Gain insight into the top career choices of 13-17 year olds

This was last published in June 2015

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What would help boost the number of women in the channel and the STEM workforce?
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I think that something that would help boost the number of women in the STEM workforce... would be more women in the STEM workforce.

I just think that those types of careers need to become more mainstream choices for women, and then we'll really see a trend that can pick up some momentum. 

It's good that these types of conversations are taking place. It's great that people are paying attention. My prediction is that any progress is going to remain slow for years, but it will happen.
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That's a good point, and an issue that a STEM curriculum needs to address. What do you see as the biggest challenge to fitting in? I wonder if other women in IT find this to be the case?
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I do agree that tech industries are welcoming to women - that has been my experience, anyway. There is really nothing preventing a woman from beginning a career in IT or telecom, if that's what she wants. In fact, she might even find some advantages from companies looking to be more diversified.

I think the problem is more that those industries are still not attractive to many women. I work in a very male-dominated IT department and that is definitely an issue for me. I have difficulty fitting in, and wish that I worked with more women.
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