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One woman's path to IT sucess
During the course of researching STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) fields I read countless numbers of articles discussing the lack of women in the STEM fields and the challenges women face. It later dawned on me that I actually worked in the same office as a woman who has a successful STEM career. What follows is my conversation with Kathy Kelly, the director of information resources and technology at Findhelp Information Service, which oversees poss.ca.
How did you get to where you are today?
One day I happened to be in a checkout line reading an article in Family Circle about careers of the future. I was interested in computers, and one of the careers mentioned in the article was systems analyst. I decided to go back to school and study computer science and math — and I loved it. After graduation, I got hired by Nortel and worked there, first as a junior programmer, then as a systems analyst, a coordinator, and a manager. Later on in my career I set up an IT systems at a new factory in France. When I got back to Canada I took over Nortel’s e-commerce initiative and became a director. (Kelly came to Findhelp in 2003.)
Did you experience any discrimination in your career?
Not really, but there were only four women in my whole graduating class, so it was definitely a male-dominated field. In the workplace sometimes I was not party to things like “decision-making in the bathroom,” [i.e.,male managers going off and making decisions without the input of women]. I clearly remember the first time I went to a meeting with a woman and we were able to make our own “decision in the bathroom” — I thought that was a big win for equality.
Did you have much support in your academic and work life?
My family was really supportive. I had a small child when I went back to school so I needed a lot of support from my husband, which I got. I would have liked to have gone to grad school but my husband’s patience was worn out by the time I graduated with my computer science degree. Also, the first manager I worked for at Nortel was very supportive.
What is the best thing about your work?
I love the problem-solving aspect of the job — the ability to solve problems on-the-fly is probably the most important skill a person can have in this field.
What is the biggest downside to the type of work you have done?
At the risk of using a stereotype, [the IT field] tends to be dominated by introverts, so I missed some of the interaction that I saw in some other groups. Also, In the past I used to be on-call and sometimes the hours were excessive — it was very demanding.
I’ve read that many women in the STEM field end up leaving, often because they have to work too many hours or the job interferes with family responsibilities. Was that an issue for you?
I can clearly remember taking my daughter into the office where she would draw on a white board while I recovered a system that had gone down. Travel was the other aspect that was challenging. I got really good at using and organizing my time and I would do as much work at home as I could.
Did you ever consider leaving the IT field?
No, if anything, I seriously considered going back for an engineering degree because I wanted to get deeper into the math and the science aspect of the work.
Do you have any advice for women considering the IT field?
I would strongly encourage women to at least explore the field. I would start encouraging girls at a very young age because you really need math fundamentals to be effective; in fact, my retirement goal is to work with young women to improve their math skills. As for women in the workplace: be confident of your abilities and don’t be afraid to speak up. The men I worked with were a lot more confident about voicing their opinions and speaking up.
You’ve told me that you went to an all-girls school. What do you think is the difference between an all-girls and a mixed school?
I think that going to an all-girls school was instrumental in whatever success I’ve had. The amount of social pressure in a mixed environment is distracting for girls. It influences their decision about how assertive and competitive to be and how hard to work. I didn’t lose any respect from anyone for being smart and doing well, whereas my daughter [who went to a mixed school] felt pressured to pull back a little bit — a lot actually.