Ann Touchstone, left, talks with Eliza Brock, while Lisa French, right, chats with Rachel Werner during a coffee break at the Nashville Women Programmers meet-up group on Saturday Aug. 3, 2013.(Photo: Alan Poizner, The Tennessean)
Bonnie Burch, The Tennessean
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the early 1980s, Tammy Hawes was one of only two women in her college graduating class to receive a computer science degree.
But recently the Virsys12 president and managing partner, who started the cloud computing/software-as-a-service technologies company in 2011, has had a lot of company in the tech industry.
Of the seven employees working at the Virsys12 offices in Brentwood, a Nashville suburb, five are women. And although gender isn't a factor in the hiring process, the demographics at this tech company showcase an employment shift as women increasingly take on jobs that deal with technology.
"I think when computers made their way into homes, that changed significantly," Hawes said. "Most kids - girls included - are involved in computers now to communicate with their friends and play video games. There's just not that mental block or stigma that women in my generation held in what we were supposed to do."
Even with advances, a gender gap still exists. An executive summary prepared for Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce notes that women represent 23% of the workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions. But women make up 48% of workers in all occupations across the board.
A recent nationwide survey released by Dice, a job search website for technology professionals, found that men out-earn women in the tech industry sectors.
On average, of the 15,000 employers contacted through an online poll, the survey found that male tech workers made $95,900 compared with $87,500 for women in these industry jobs. However, the compensation gender gap has narrowed, with average salaries equal for male and female tech pros with comparable levels of experience and education and parallel job titles.
According to the survey, the top tech positions for women - in order - were project manager, business analyst, other IT, quality assurance tester and technical recruiter, while men tended to hold job titles such as software engineer, systems administrator, project manager, IT manager and applications developer.
Education is key
"Being in technology is a great career path for women. It is still a male-dominated industry, but that's changing. And it's an exciting time to be in technology. Schools are specifically targeting those career paths, and the programs are out there," said Connie McGee, who has been involved in technology for 28 years and is CEO of Evolve Women, a women's entrepreneurial center.
To her, education is the key to encouraging more female interest and participation in these types of careers, especially in engineering jobs. Male and female students are enrolled at Vanderbilt University in about equal numbers, but 31% of undergrads in the School of Engineering are women, according to Cindy Funk, director of the college's Center for Student Professional Development.
Evolve Women has recently partnered with a local high school to pilot a youth entrepreneurship initiative in which students shadow mentors and have an opportunity to participate in a business plan competition.
"Technology can be a natural fit for either gender as long as they are passionate and enjoy what they are doing," McGee said. "It gives them opportunities to develop role models in the industry. I know some might think that all an engineer does is sit behind a desk, but that's not the case. If we bring these students in as interns, we allow them to see that it really is interesting work."
Diversity of thought
Lisa French, who took her marketing background and combined it with new technologies, initially didn't think that she was tech material because she wasn't keen on math. But a love of social media and a new iPhone in her hand as a college graduation gift changed her perspective.
In January, she graduated from the Nashville Software School and landed a new job with Moontoast, a company that empowers brands to reach their target audiences across all major social networks and devices using interactive social rich media.
"I think you get a different perspective. Women use technical products, and diversity of thought is a great thing when you're working with a diverse market," French said.
She also leads a meet-up group - free and open to all - known as Nashville Women Programmers.
"I'm new to it myself. I don't claim to be an expert, and the technology changes all the time. It's easy to feel down on skills because everything is so massive," she said. "But I also feel really passionate about getting new people into programming. With my background, I was interested but didn't think I could do it. But I'm here to say that you can do it."
Lora Stevenson's start in the tech field came by learning mainframe systems and DOS on the family's Radio Shack Tandy computer. When she was barely in her teenage years, she made a little pocket money developing programs for local businesses. Now Stevenson is the 41-year-old CEO of Mothers Digital, an on-demand project staffing, coordination and management business for creative digital projects. She is involved with The Salon, a group of professional women that meets once a month.
"I came into this industry early enough that my expectation was not to see other women," she said.
At one time, she remembers attending an electronics convention that featured a Middle Eastern-themed show complete with live tigers. She looked around the room and noticed the only women who were there - and not belly dancers - were herself and another woman.
"Now that's shifted. I think having more women involved makes better products," Stevenson said. "It's exciting to see that happening, but I do wish it was a little faster."