Some of you may know that I started my professional career in 1967 as a programmer trainee at then John Hancock Life Insurance in Boston. I was part of a trainee class that was made up primarily of new grads from Ivy League universities with degrees in such diverse fields as linguistics, sociology, anthropology and, in my case, English literature with a minor in natural sciences (cobbled together from the courses I had taken when my planned major was physics). Our class was about half and half, young men and women.
It wasn’t long before I learned that the women were all being paid $139 per week while our male colleagues made $152 per week for doing precisely the same work and with precisely the same credentials. If you know me at all, then you know that this early evidence of gender bias and income disparity did NOT sit well.
When I asked then Personnel (long before it became HR or acquired even more fanciful names, like central casting or associate relations, and before the supporting software went from payroll to HRIS to HRMS and on to today’s HCM) about this disparity and bias, I was told by the nice Personnel lady that those male colleagues would soon be family breadwinners whereas I would be leaving to raise my family or, at best, sharing my attention between child-raising and work. That too didn’t sit well with my feminist soul, and I left John Hancock as soon as I’d gotten enough training and experience under my belt to make that a sensible move.
That truly was what women of my generation faced when we began to enter the professional workforce in large numbers in the 60’s, but I never imagined we would still be fighting those battles now, a half century later. Gender bias and income inequality in the workforce, particularly in my world of enterprise software, may not be as bad as it was then, but it’s bad enough that we’re still talking about it. I’m not a researcher or an academic, and you should turn to them for an accurate assessment, country by country and job type by job type, of where we stand now. But what I do know from my own work experience is that, across the enterprise software industry, there are very few women in CTO, CIO, chief architect, head of development, and other technology leadership roles.
In this latest “Firing Line with Bill Kutik” conversation, I share my thoughts on why so many of my programmer trainee classmates didn’t get to the top of their field, what I did to face down the barriers on my career path, and some things we could be doing — right now — to improve the situation. I hope you’ll watch the video when you have a moment, but I also hope that you’ll get out there and do whatever you can to fix this imbalance.
Since this is my blog, and a place where you can comment, I’d like to speak directly to my colleagues about two challenges for which there just wasn’t time in our Firing Line format. First, there’s no way to get to the top of any field, technology or otherwise, without making huge personal sacrifices. And that goes for those who aspire as well as those who become their life partners. For every woman (or man, for that matter) who is capable of and interested in becoming a chief architect or CIO or head of development, there’s a long tough road ahead, many obstacles to be overcome, and decades of long hours and tough choices.
No one can manage all of this and raise a family and have any quality of life unless they’ve got a “village” to help them, and not all of us are fortunate enough to have that village in place when we want to start a family. Whether that “village” is a group of friends, a spouse, and/or family members, the reality is that you’re going to need their help, their understanding, and their active support if you’re going to pursue the highest levels of tech leadership and raise a family.
In our case, the choice not to have children wasn’t difficult, and it was the right one for us. It made it much easier for each of us to take on heavy travel job opportunities and to pursue them aggressively. But there’s simply no way that I could have had the last 15+ years of the career I wanted, especially once I developed the mobility challenges of which some of you are aware, if my husband Ron Wallace, like a knight in shining armor, hadn’t come to my aid. Even without children, it takes a “village.”
For a growing number of women in today’s HR tech leadership roles, their life partners are taking on, like Ron has done, the at home responsibilities so that they can pursue their careers and, perhaps, raise a family while maintaining the required heavy schedules, including travel schedules, that our field requires. In other cases, parents are stepping in to help on the home front so that both partners can pursue their career ambitions. Some couples earn enough early on to afford full-time, live-in child care or other such arrangements, while others patch together an assortment of child and home care arrangements to enable both careers to progress. Toughest of all, and those for whom I have the greatest respect, are the single parents carrying the full load of breadwinning, child and home care. And while salaries in technology can be quite generous, they can be much less so on the bottom rungs, in the many adjunct roles that don’t require quite as much education, and when that single parent cannot manage full-time work.
Over the years, especially once my own career was well-established, I’ve been that friend who held the fort for a colleague (although not when it comes to small children because I’m totally incompetent until they’re completely sentient) at a client site or on a deliverable when I could do it and they couldn’t. And, for close friends and family, I’ve been their patient advocate even lifeline as they went through the hell of serious medical treatments. Yes, it does take a “village,” and you can’t start early enough to build and nurture that “village” against your future ambitions.
Second, there’s something else that we touch on in the video but didn’t have enough time to explore fully, namely the role played by personality in reaching the top of whatever heap you choose to climb. Call it grit, perseverance, resilience, strength of character, or sheer determination to describe that collection of KSAOCs which enables some people to just keep moving, to pick themselves up when they’ve been knocked down, to refuse to be limited by the assessment of others, and to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. I don’t know the right words to describe these behaviors, and I don’t know why some people develop them while others, even siblings, do not. But I do know that all the women in my experience, who have made it to the top of anything, have these qualities in spades.
Others may have suspected this about me, but I didn’t discover these qualities until my first career dreams went up in smoke. I went to UPenn to become a nuclear physicist but discovered, pretty early in my education there, that I lacked that special intellectual gifts which were required to move beyond learning the proofs of even advanced physics to positing and solving what had not yet been proven. I remember very well that awful day when I knew that my dream wasn’t achievable, and you won’t be surprised that I had a couple of good cries while grieving for what was lost. But then I picked myself up, got some input from teachers and advisers, did some research, and figured out where to go next, all while working nearly full-time to pay my living expenses. There were still some zigs and zags before I landed at John Hancock as a programmer trainee, and many more bumps and lumps from then until now, but somewhere inside of me is a voice which just won’t take no for an answer. Many of you have that voice too, and I urge you to shut out the din and listen to it.
Please do watch our video and let me know what you think. I’ll try to respond personally to all of your comments on this post, but you can also reach me directly at email@example.com. And I know that Bill would be delighted to hear your feedback on his “Firing Line” series, where you can comment and share after watching our video.