Trailblazers leave footprints for others to follow
- By Richard W. Walker
- Mar 29, 1999
In interviewing women in federal information technology, GCN sought to find out who
these women are, where they are, how they got where they are and what the journey was
What follows are the answers we got from nine women in different agencies, in different
aspects of IT, and at different points in their careers.
During a break at the October meeting of the Executive Leadership Conference in
Richmond, Va., Adams found herself queuing up for the ladies room. For the women in
the line, it proved to be an ironic symbol that times are changing.
We were all joking that this is goodtheres actually a line at the
ladies room, Adams said. Typically, you would go to these information
technology conferences, and there werent very many women there.
Adams, whose federal career spans 27 years, remembers the days when she was often the
only woman at a meeting.
You cannot help but look around a room of 20 or 30 people in a meeting and notice
that youre the only woman there, she said. But I really cannot say I
found that intimidating, inhibiting or threatening. Thats just the way it was.
The IT field can still be like that, especially at the management level, she said.
There are still times when I find myself in meetings where Ill be the only
woman or there will just be a couple of women, she said.
But that is changing because a whole lot of women over the last five to 10 years
have come through the pipeline through entry-level positions, Adams said.
The federal government has always offered more opportunities for women, she said.
Thats part of the reason I went with the federal government 27 years ago when
I was coming out of college and interviewing for jobs, she said. I thought I
would be given a fair shake to move ahead.
In retrospect, she was right, she said. I cant really look at any point in
my career where I felt that I was held back or not given an opportunity to excel or move
ahead because I was a woman.
The federal government is an excellent place for women to be, especially at
the mid- and high levels, said Browning, who has spent most of her 30-year federal
career with the Army.
Theres a lot of opportunity if they have good leadership skills and good IT
skillsyou need the combination of both, she said.
Women still face hurdles.
Its still a challenge to break the glass ceiling, but I think it is still a
lot better today than it was even 10 years ago, Browning said.
This is true not only for IT but all around. I still think that men by and large,
especially older men, are more comfortable promoting people like themselves, more
typically men, she said. So its important that women in the senior executive
positions begin to reach down and pick women. Thats still an issue, but its a
universal issue, not an IT issue.
Browning expects the pockets of resistance to disappear eventually.
There is less intolerance in a lot of the younger men, who have grown up with
moms who have worked and whose wives in many cases work, she said. For women
my age and older, this was not the case universally. So there are a lot of generational
issues that are beginning to break down the barriers for women in IT.
Browning credits the Army for encouraging her to pursue an IT career.
The Army paid for my masters degree, pulled me out of a nonprofessional
job, asked me if I wanted to work in computers and trained me, she said. So I
have not found a lot of discrimination in the Army.
Browning voiced concern that fewer women than men go into computer science, information
systems and engineering.
Thats an issue that needs to be addressed at the grade school, middle
school and high school levels, because there are lots of opportunities in these
fields, she said.
Fletcher says she has not run into barriers during her 29-year federal career.
I didnt see someone try to not open the door or try to shut the door in my
face, she said.
But in the late 1980s, as she began to rise through the IT management ranks, Fletcher
encountered some skepticism about her abilities from men.
The higher up I got, the more resistance I saw from the men I managednot
all of them but some of them, she said. It was more like, What does a
female know about mainframes or shes a good manager but she doesnt
have the technical knowledge because shes not a man.
Fletcher said her experience, accomplishments and management style helped overcome the
attitudes of a few doubting Thomases.
The way I dealt with it was just to do my job, she said. I had to
prove myself, not only to my bosses but also to my subordinates.
Young women today can pick and choose where they want to go in federal information
systems, she said.
The IT field is growing at such a fast pace, and the younger people coming into
the government are already IT savvy for the most part, she said. There are
mounds and mounds of opportunities there, for female and male.
She cautions young women not to think of themselves as special just because they are
women in the computer field.
Its a career that, if youre interested in it and want to work hard at
it, you can succeed in, she said.
When Massaro started her career as structural engineer for the Navy in 1968,
women faced major obstacles.
There were very few women engineers then, she said. You really were
one of a minority.
Moreover, bias was sometimes blatant. For example, it wasnt unusual for a male
engineer with a family to be preferred over a woman for promotion, Massaro said.
Youve got a husband to take care of you was the attitude toward
women, Massaro said.
Of course, people cannot get away with saying that anymore, she said.
Today, most of the barriers that women in IT have are more in their own
minds, Massaro said. Women seem to tend to think that this is an area
thats not for women. But women have been doing very well in the federal sector, and
thats going to continue. And certainly the IT field is growing by leaps and bounds,
and there are lots of opportunities. Women have to see this as a challenge and prepare
I would urge women to see this as a great opportunity and to seize it if
theyve got any interest in working in the computer, math or sciences areas,
Its also important for women to develop managerial skills as well as technical
You can accomplish so much more as a manager and a leader than you can as a just
a single worker, she said.
Women in federal IT still face the challenge of being taken
seriously, Powers-King said.
We need to work harder to make sure our managers, peers and subordinates
recognize that we have been trained well and can compete in all facets of this
field, she said.
Women arent always appreciated for their ability to work side by side with men in
technical areas, Powers-King said. Some organizations are further ahead of others in
accepting diversity and change.
Some are very far behind. This difference can be true in a single department or
agency, she said.
As a 20-year FAA veteran who has helped develop major systems for the National Airspace
System and FAA business systems, Powers-King says her biggest challenge has been a senior
management that has been dominated by men.
They tend to see what they are used to seeing, which means a management structure
generally managed by men, she said.
In many cases, management of IT organizations is still largely run by men who
have difficulty envisioning women in the same roles as themselves.
They dont always appreciate that women are very capable and competitive
when trained in non-administrative, technical-oriented careers, she said.
As a result, she said, women must make their own opportunities.
Some things can be easily changed, and other things may take years due to culture
or other factors, she said. We have to have the training, knowledge, intuition
and perception to understand what we can influence and how we can make a difference.
The year 2000 problem in particular has opened special opportunities in technical and
management areas for women who are willing to step up to the challenge, she said.
We have to be intelligent enough to understand goals and objectives and assure
that we can remain competitive and exceed expectations, she said.
IT is no longer exclusively a mans world, Parker said.
I think women who bring the skills and knowledge to the table have just as equal
an opportunity to be involved as have men, she said.
Nonetheless, some departments or agencies may have some residual good-old-boy network
If youre in that environmentIm not in that environment right
nowthe challenge is to overcome it within your agency, to prove yourself, she
Parker said she thinks that women still must, to a greater degree than men, prove
Ive always had to prove myself, where some of my male counterparts
didnt, she said.
Although the challenges remain, theyre nowhere near what they used to be for
women, Parker said.
I think the opportunity is there for women to do whatever they want in
technology, she said.
Women just need not to be intimidated and must be determined that they are just
as smart as the next person. They need to have a lot of confidence and be assertive,
Being a woman in government IT hasnt been an issue for Reed. Maybe it
should have been, but I just dont think in those terms, she said.
Im about getting the job done and working with whomever it is I have to to get
the job done.
This is not to say that she hasnt run up against sexist attitudes. For example,
when she first was interviewed at Agriculture, she was asked, Look, you need to
understand that the Department of Agriculture is historically a male-dominated
organization. Do you think you can be effective in this environment?
I had to laugh, Reed said. I said, Ive just spent the
last 12 years in the Defense Department. This is not a problem. And it hasnt
In fact, since that time, Agricultures executive structure has grown diverse in
terms of men and women, ethnic origin and background, she said. Its been a lot
of fun to work in an environment where there are lots of different perspectives, she
For women, opportunities in federal IT abound, she said. You look at the federal
community, and there are a number of women in fabulous positions of ever-increasing
The reason? Theyre good, Reed said.
I think IT is very open to women because its a new field, more open
than more established fields, Remez said.
For women in federal IT, any remaining special challenges or issues are quickly
dropping by the wayside, Remez said.
You may be the first woman to achieve a certain position, and thats a
challenge, she said, adding that she did not receive different treatment because she
was a woman.
More problematic for Remez is that fewer women are seeking careers in computers.
I think its a misconception of what the job is, she said. I
have a feeling that what computer science means to most people is programming. But we need
computer science graduates who can do a lot more than just program. We need people who can
envision the future, design new methods of using technology and apply them to government
challenges, who can work with people and who have a good sense of the needs of
Remez said federal women in IT need to go out to elementary schools and talk about
their jobs and what they do.
The sciences and math need to be encouraged for girls at a young age, and the
colleges need to do a better job in recruiting women, she said.
Yuhas could be just the young woman Remez was describing. Her first job as a new
librarian began five years ago where she continuesat the CIA.
Two years ago, she was assessing her career movementor lack thereof. I
looked around at where the opportunities were, where there was room for growth, and it was
in computers, in information technology, Yuhas said. So I started
concentrating on IT.
Because the field was so new, she said, an established hierarchy had yet to grow up
around it. Although shes not yet classified as an IT specialist, I just end up
doing it, she said.