Why women in STEM need to be the forerunners of change

Lori MacVittie, Principal Threat Evangelist at F5 Network, talks about her experience as a woman in the STEM industry and provides advice to inspire women in the sector.

How did you get into STEM?

My mother was actually a programmer in the 70s, so I wasn’t the first female in my family to pursue a career in STEM. She often brought work home with her and I found it fascinating. Once we got a computer, I was hooked, and this is where my love for technology started. As quite an introverted person, given the choice, I would often rather talk to a computer than people because it listened to me.

I then went on to achieve a Bachelors and a Masters degree in Computer Science. Following my studies, I worked as a developer and architect, and after a few years moved over to the publishing industry. It was different but still related to my passion for technology, as it was my job to make complex technologies more accessible by reporting on them in a way that almost anyone could understand. In 2006 I joined F5, and this was where my two different career paths came together.

Tell us a bit about your current role in this industry?

In my current role at F5, I’m responsible for education and evangelism of application services across the businesses product suite. In other words, I distil technical concepts into something that most people can understand. This includes authoring technical articles about a variety of topics including architecture and application security to cloud computing and DevOps. I also attend a lot of industry events and community-based meetups to join panel discussions.

Talk us through some of the challenges you faced, because you were a woman, as you rose through the ranks in the STEM industry? How did you overcome these challenges?

I have been lucky in the Midwest, as I have not come across many roadblocks in my career because of my gender. The area is full of insurance companies in which the majority of programmers have been female. It just seemed to be part of the culture to have women in these kinds of positions. 

Despite this, throughout my career, I have experienced male colleagues who wouldn’t take direction from a woman, and also men at conferences who are completely taken aback when they realise I know what I am talking about. My question is, what made you assume I didn’t? It’s frustrating but something I try to move past quickly – you can’t let people like that bring you down!

What ways have you seen/experienced employers embrace diversity and improve their practices?

F5 now has a great mentoring scheme in place that is open to everyone, which has been a great way to support women in the workplace. Being mentored by another person who has had similar experiences can be extremely useful professionally. We’ve seen examples of this when females return to the workplace after motherhood, or junior staff being mentored by senior women. The programme not only matches like-minded employees but also provides a comfortable way to discuss sensitive matters in confidence.

>See Also: Study highlights the lack of recognisable role models and women in STEM

Specifically, how can companies encourage women to join the STEM industry

Most of us have likely run into one or two people who don’t take well to women in tech. It’s a sad scenario, but one that is slowly improving as more females take on STEM roles. But change isn’t going to happen overnight, and I think it’s the responsibility of businesses today to create and promote a working environment that is not only welcoming but also encouraging, to both men and women.

For example, if an employee experiences discrimination from a colleague – such as condescending management because of someone’s gender – there should be processes in place to help them deal with it, and employees should feel that they can make reports to HR when necessary.

What advice would you give to young girls wanting to join the STEM industry?

The most important thing for me is that data and computers don’t care about gender, so women shouldn’t let it bother them either. My advice would be, if you’re interested in a STEM career, just go for it! 

Wherever you go, it’s likely that you’ll end up in a male-dominated environment and if that makes you uncomfortable then that’s OK. Make sure you find a mentor or friend who you can vent to, and a business or educational body that will provide the right support to help you be successful in your career. STEM industries have a reputation for women struggling to be successful. Don’t be put off – if we want change, we need to be the forerunners.

What are you personally doing to make sure there are more support and encouragement for women in the STEM industry?

There is a tendency to dismiss women in technology that aren’t in a hands-on role, but my belief is that we need to support and promote all women in the technology industry because ultimately not everyone that wants a slice of the technology world wants to sit and code all day. 

Fundamentally, STEM has a brand problem and there is a stereotype of the type of women who work in STEM roles. When we think of these roles, we might think of introverts and people that wear all black and no heels, but that’s just not the case! Whatever kind of woman you are, what you wear or what personality you have, is irrelevant. There’s a role for you. This is a message I am trying to promote amongst my peers.

>See Also: TVSquared: why perfect is the enemy of good for women in STEM roles

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