Women make the grade in IT
- By Florence Olsen
- Mar 29, 1999
When Anne Thomson Reed was interviewed for a top job at Agriculture, she was asked if
she could be effective in a department of mostly men.
Reed had spent the previous 12 years in management in the Navy. The gender issue, she
told them, is not a problem.
Highly valued for their technical and managerial skills, Reed and other women have
reached the top ranks of information technology management in the federal government.
Their reason for wanting the top jobs is simple: Management offers greater
opportunities for innovation and achievement, said Linda Massaro, the National Science
Foundations chief information officer. In other words, a good IT manager is a force
multiplier, to borrow a phrase used in the Army.
Massaro recognized in herself the attributes that supervisors rewarded with promotion
into the executive management ranks.
Although technical expertise is a good thing and necessary for success, the women in
technology interviewed for this Spotlight all agreed that women need opportunities to
develop managerial and leadership skills.
Does the federal government afford those opportunities? Yes, and not just small
opportunities, said Belkis Leong-Hong, former chief information officer for the Defense
Security Service and a public servant for 29 years before retiring in January (see story,
I had the opportunity to build programs, to build whole initiatives from
scratch, Leong-Hong said. I got the chance to make something happen.
When Kathleen Adams was just out of college and looking for her first job, she, too,
gravitated toward the federal government, where she believed she would be given a fair
chance for promotion.
Her hunch 27 years ago was right. Adams, now assistant deputy commissioner for systems
at the Social Security Administration, is recognized throughout the federal government as
a leader in managing information technology and the year 2000 computer crisis.
The federal government, with its incentives for treating women equally, might even be a
better workplace for women than the private sector, said Cynthia Kendall, former deputy
assistant secretary of Defense for information management.
Kendall, now a corporate executive, spent 25 years in government and found surprising
opportunities and exemplary bosses.
I worked for some giants, said Kendall, a corporate vice president with
Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego. Duane Andrews, a former assistant
secretary of Defense, and Sean OKeefe, who later became secretary of the Navy, were
big influences, she said. I could see how they dealt with people, how they dealt
with issues. I learned from them what things worked well.
Some federal IT managers think the opportunities for women are plentiful because
information technology itself is still relatively new and therefore less tradition-bound.
At the same time, theyre starting to worry that too few women and men graduating
from college today are interested in computer jobs in government and industry.
Shereen G. Remez, chief information officer for the General Services Administration,
admits she is baffled by the numbers. In the current class of 1,200 computer science
majors at the University of Maryland, for example, only 200 are women, she said.
I find that very disturbing, Remez said. Maybe young people think of
computer science majors as programmers; if so, they are misinformed, she said.
The government needs people with vision, who can communicate and apply technology to
solve big problems, Remez said. Threats to information security, cyberterrorism and rapid
technology change are large, vexing problems the government has to manage, she said.
Other federal information technology managers share Remezs alarm.
The declining numbers of women and men majoring in computer science has become a issue
of national concern, said Miriam Browning, director of information management for the
Browning said the government needs to attract more young women and men who are
interested in information technology, acquisition, business and organizational management.
In some ways, the women who manage federal information technology have more difficult
jobs than their peers in the private sector. Kendall, who has worked on both sides, said
federal IT managers have to satisfy many more interests than IT managers in the private
While at the Defense Department, for example, Kendall said, she had to constantly
balance the interests of the military services, Congress and industry.
In government, you have all these interests surrounding you, Kendall said.
In the private sector, she has fewer constituencies pulling her in different directions.
The tug of different interests adds frustration, but women in government are
compensated with interesting work.
Kendall said she would never trade her early experiences as an Air Force programmer.
She remembers the fun she had using least squares regression on the problem of aircraft
Later she had the opportunity to introduce biennial budgeting into the Defense
comptrollers automated budgeting system. During her last years in government she
developed Defense Department policies for corporate information management.
That things are changing and the numbers are growing is obvious. Women in
Technologys panel discussion by three women Internet entrepreneurs last month drew
more than 200 women to the McLean, Va., meeting.
Leong-Hong said she remembers when similar events played to a handful.