In NJ, Most Women Who End up in Tech, Don’t Start Out on That Path, Sally Nadler Says at NJIT Murray Center Event

When Sally Nadler worked at a major utility company, she started off in call center operations. At the time, all the call-switching equipment was analog. When digital replaced analog, it was the women who stepped up and learned the technology and trained everybody else. She didn’t start out with the goal of working with digital technology, but when the technology presented itself, she saw it as an opportunity and went with it.

Now, Nadler is assistant dean of Rutgers Residential College and director of the Douglass Project for Rutgers Women in Math, Science & Engineering. She shared her early experience in technology at the 2019 Women Designing the Future – Game Changers! conference, held on March 29 at NJIT’s Murray Center for Women in Technology.

She also shared findings from an upcoming report, “Women in Technology,” produced by the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Relations for the Council on Gender Parity in Labor and Education. The report found that her experience was very similar to the way many women end up in technology occupations.

The “Women in Technology” report grew out of research Nadler was doing as chair of the Council on Gender Parity in Labor and Education. “We worked with the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development to put the gender lens on the eight ‘talent networks,’” said Nadler. “We looked at eight industry sectors and we selected two to do a deeper dive.”

One of the two sectors selected was technology. Ironically, women were better represented in this sector prior to the 1990s than they are today. “With the resurgence of technology, we knew this as a continually underrepresented area, but that it also presented an unprecedented opportunity because of the way technology intersects every single industry sector these days,” said Nadler.

“Women didn’t initially consider jobs in technology. They learned about computing jobs where they worked, and then were motivated by the fact that those jobs are growing, and those jobs pay really well.” Sally Nadler at Murray Center for Women in Technology

The study, authored by Elaine Zundl at the Center for Women and Work, found that, in New Jersey, women comprise about 36 percent of the technology sector, but hold only 17% of software developer positions, 28% of computer system analyst positions and about 20% percent of computer and information-systems manager positions. “The higher you go, the lower the percentage,” said Nadler.

In interviews with the women who are in the sector today, researchers learned that few women have an undergraduate or associate degree in technology. “They kind of fell into it, and they saw an opportunity,” said Nadler. “We wanted to know how they got into the technology field if they didn’t pursue a bachelor’s degree” in a tech-related subject.

“With the 24 interviews that were conducted, the participants talked about a constant need to train and upgrade their skills,” said Nadler. “Many wanted to work in technology to leave disrupted or declining industries, and many had degrees in other areas, from the social sciences and humanities, even business, math, and accounting. So, some of the key themes are that women didn’t initially consider jobs in technology. They learned about computing jobs where they worked, and then were motivated by the fact that those jobs are growing, and those jobs pay really well.”

For many women, though, training is disruptive to the work‒life balance. “That’s how you work your way up,” said Nadler. “But technology means unpredictable hours, constant training, and little support around work‒life balance for women with children. Many women were initially trained by for-profit boot camps. I didn’t care for that so much, but it did help them get their foot in the door. Now, when I focus on the best practices, continuing education is key.”

Nadler pointed out some programs in New Jersey that are using best practices. These include Latinas in STEM, which provides mentors for young girls, and the Douglass project for women in STEM, which offers undergraduate programs in engineering and computer science and for women of color in premed. Nadler also mentioned the New Jersey Stem Pathways Network, an initiative chaired by philanthropist Laura Overdeck and managed by the Research & Development Council of New Jersey. This initiative has generated ecosystems in different towns throughout New Jersey that connect K‒12 to postsecondary education.

Nadler also noted that The Domain Tech Academy@Mercer, a cooperative partnership between Mercer County Community College (West Windsor and Trenton) and Domain Computer Services (Cranbury), is not only a model apprenticeship program, but also as a program that has opened the eyes of IT businesses regarding the benefits of hiring technology workers with degrees from community colleges combined with apprenticeship experience.

Nadler is optimistic about the future. The Council on Gender Parity in Labor and Education is putting together resources so that, when women are suddenly looking for new career paths, the information about what they need to quickly enter such fields as cybersecurity or blockchain will be readily available. They will be able to grab the opportunity to enter technology, much as Nadler did early in her career.

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