Women in technology fields discuss career paths, industry challenges

By Liz Segrist
Published May 29, 2014

Jenna L’Esperance woke up one morning in 2011 and decided to go to school.

She walked into Trident Technical College and sat down with a guidance counselor, who asked her what she wanted to do.

“I knew I wanted to do something with computers because that’s the future,” said L’Esperance, who spoke Wednesday at the “Women in Tech — Working in the Industry” event hosted by the Charleston Digital Corridor and Trident Tech.

L’Esperance did not own a computer at the time, but she has since graduated from Trident Tech, as well as the Digital Corridor’s CodeCamp classes. Her internship as an internal systems engineer at BoomTown recently led to her obtaining a full-time position as the first female developer at the Charleston tech firm.

Share of women in selected tech positions:

  • Web developers: 39.5%
  • Database administrators: 37.4%
  • Computer systems analysts: 34.9%
  • Computer support specialists: 29%
  • Computer programmers: 23%
  • Software developers: 19.7%
  • Network and computer systems administrators: 17.3%
  • Computer network architects: 7.5%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013 data

“I just love to write code all day. ... I volunteer with CS First too, and I’m so glad programming is being introduced to kids at an earlier age because I didn’t get that opportunity,” L’Esperance said, referring to a computer science training program for youth that Google launched last year.

She was one of six female panelists to speak at the event, a first of its kind designed to give students interested in the tech sector, and professionals looking to break into the industry, an opportunity to talk with women working in the field.

About 30 women gathered in a room at the Charleston Digital Corridor’s Flagship in downtown Charleston to chat with the panelists about their career paths and the challenges they sometimes face in an industry dominated by men.

Amanda Hodges said she was “the girl that liked math” from a young age. She went on to graduate from college with a computer science degree and recently joined Zubie as a software engineer.

“This industry is great because there’s always something to learn. It’s amazingly frustrating,” Hodges said. “There’s nothing better than that ‘A-ha’ moment when you’ve been trying to find the next piece of functionality and then you figure it out. You get that epiphany and do a competitive happy dance.”

Some of the women said that being a minority in the workplace is not that noticeable and they “feel like one of the guys” and “love their work.” Others said they are sometimes judged if they don’t fit the “tomboy coder stereotype” and have seen women leave the field for “not fitting in.”

Jen Boulware, an engineering manager at PeopleMatter, said women have to look past that to focus on their skills.

“The quality of your work and the way you act is what makes you professional,” Boulware said. “Show up and do a good job and you’ll get respect.”

Part of the reason fewer women are in the tech sector is because of a lack of exposure, panelists said. Many women do not think about entering the tech industry if they are not introduced to it at a young age, they said.

Jamie Sue Goodman is working to change that as the leader of CS First. More than 1,200 middle school students from Berkeley, Dorchester and Charleston counties participated in the program last year.

“How many female computer science role models do kids have to look up to today?” Goodman asked. “We need to be talking about how computer science can impact the world.”

When asked how more women can join the growing tech scene in Charleston, the speakers agreed that those interested in the field should put energy toward learning to code, creating strong portfolios and being confident in their capabilities, regardless of stereotypes.

“If you want to be a developer, stop thinking about the fact that you’re a woman in tech. Go code. Code all the time. Get GitHub and create a portfolio,” Goodman said. “Show them what you can do and they’ll stop looking at you and start looking at your work.”

Valerie Sessions, an assistant professor of computer science at Charleston Southern University and a computer scientist at SPAWAR, said women have to be fearless in the tech industry.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions because you are the only women in class. Just do it. Be courageous about learning and finding mentors and doing what you love,” Sessions said. “Just go for it.”

Reach staff writer Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119 or @lizsegrist on Twitter.

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