Sitting in her computer science classes at N.C. State University, Meghana Subramaniam was careful not to raise her hand. She saved all of her questions for the professor after class, when she knew her classmates couldn’t judge her.
They’d been coding since they were kids, and she didn’t get started in technology until college -- she didn’t want to embarrass herself.
She knew she already stood out. She was one of the few women in the room, surrounded by males. She was also one of the few people of color in the class. She didn’t want to call more attention to herself.
The percentage of women in computer, engineering and science occupations is 2% higher in North Carolina than the national average, according to the American Community Survey. Though women account for 48% of the state’s working population, the percentage of women in those specific fields is 27%. In the United States, women account for 47% of the workforce and 25% of the computer, engineering and science fields.
The News & Observer conducted an informal survey of local technology companies, with 22 companies responding. The average percentage of women employed at those technology companies was 38%. That’s far higher than either the state or national average, but because the sample size is so small, the number can’t be extrapolated to cover the region.
Getting back into the field
Jennifer Shevach had two degrees in computer science and nine years of experience working in technology. And yet, no one would hire her.
For Shevach, coming back to the workforce after being a stay-at-home mom was harder than just being away from her children.
She had a master’s degree from Columbia University and had kept current on the rapidly changing world of web development, but after 12 years out of the field, no one wanted her.
Shevach had to start again at the bottom and work her way back up. She was eventually hired for an entry-level position at a technology company, and now works as a software engineering manager at Pendo, a rapidly growing Raleigh software company.
She’s in charge of nine software developers. Of those nine, only two are women.
The industry has somewhat progressed in terms of gender equality since she first started out, Shevach said.
“When I came back into the industry, to be honest, I expected things to have progressed more,” she said.
At the companies that responded to The News & Observer survey, the percentage of leadership positions held by women was 31%. One company had no women working for it at all, and four companies had no women in leadership positions.
At a company Shevach previously worked for, the engineering department agreed to have a department-wide group outing as a team-building experience.
One of her coworkers organized the event and sent out an email detailing plans to play laser tag. When Shevach went to the laser tag company’s website to find directions, she found it was full of very attractive half-dressed women holding big guns.
“The idea of it didn’t offend me,” she said. “It just upset me that that’s where we were going as a department.”
She told some coworkers that it seemed wrong to her to go to a place that was portraying women in that way, especially when there were women working in the department.
The man who planned the trip overheard her and jumped into the conversation, saying he didn’t see a problem with it.
Shevach asked him how he thought the place would make women in the department feel, and he responded that he didn’t care how women felt.
“Sometimes men don’t think about things so simple as an outing,” Shevach said. “We wouldn’t all go cross-stitching.”
She also remembers male colleagues treating her differently, just because she was a woman. They would speak to her in a condescending tone, as if they knew more than she did, but not to the men in the department, she said.
“I’m the kind of person who can look past those things,” Shevach said. “I knew what I wanted, and tried not to focus on it. I had a vision, I had a goal and went towards it.”
Confidence is the key
Maria Thompson exudes confidence. From joining the Marine Corps as a black woman in the ‘80s to being in charge of all cybersecurity for the state of North Carolina, Thompson has never been one to back down from a challenge.
She now works to instill the same confidence in her 9-year-old daughter and little girls everywhere.
Thompson bounced around growing up, living in the United States, Canada and Jamaica. Her dream was always to become a lawyer. Information technology was never a field that even crossed her mind until she was already out of school and in the military.
The idea of a traditionally male-dominated field didn’t scare her. She was used to being one of the only women in the room.
“There are times you’re questioned, whether or not you deserve to be at the table,” she said. “You gain respect over time if you hold your ground and educate yourself to make sure you can prove you deserve to be there.”
After joining the Marines and starting work in cybersecurity, Thompson fell in love with technology. When her time in the military was over, she continued working in the field.
Eventually, she worked her way up to become the chief risk officer at the N.C. Department of Information Technology. She was part of a wave of women coming into the department and disrupting the stereotype that the job was meant for a man.
“Sometimes if your male coworker does one thing you have to do two just to earn that same position,” Thompson said. “But once you’ve earned that respect from them it makes it a lot easier.”
The key to her success was always her confidence, Thompson said. Even when her male peers caused her to doubt her own abilities, she never let them see it.
Instead, she would take time on her own to reflect and regroup, and come back stronger than before.
“Women bring a lot of value to any workplace, not just IT,” Thompson said, adding that traditionally women have been put into separate categories from men, over time making women believe that they couldn’t do certain things.
Ursula Mead’s website, InHerSight, allows women across the country to anonymously rank places they have worked in 16 different categories, so that other women can find jobs based on their personal preferences.
According to data collected from her website, Mead said that women in technology in North Carolina are more satisfied with their jobs in 14 of the 16 ratings categories.
The two categories the state lags in are “female representation in leadership” and “management opportunities for women.”
“Women don’t have the same access to opportunity as men in the office,” Mead said. “The perception of equal opportunity is a huge driver of your happiness at work.”
The numbers are changing
Subramaniam, the N.C. State student, grew up in India, and never questioned her ability to go into a technological field. In India, everyone was encouraged to pursue anything technological because it meant that you would have a good, well-paying job and be self-sufficient.
When she came to the United States for college, she realized that wasn’t the case for a lot of girls who grew up here. She heard stories of girls being discouraged from AP computer science classes in high school, and even being told not to pursue the field at all.
Even though with just a quick glance around her classrooms Subramaniam knows women are outnumbered, she also knows the divide is shrinking.
When she graduated from N.C. State in May of 2019, her graduating class had the best ratio of women to men in computer science that the school had ever seen.
Each year, it improves, she said.
Thompson speaks on panels and visits schools, trying to relay this message to young students. The more that young girls hear that technology is a possibility for them, the more likely they’ll be to want to work in the field, she said.
She believes that a solid pipeline can be created to funnel more women into technology jobs, but that it has to start with a public-private academic partnership to establish the framework within the state.
Jessica Mitsch, founder of coding school Momentum, said her female graduates have actually been getting higher salary offers than their male counterparts.
The school has an equal number of males and females in each class.
Subramaniam wants to share her love for technology with other people who identify with her. She wants to look around the room and see more faces that look like hers, also passionate about technology.
She believes that people coming from different gender identities, races and backgrounds can help drive the technology industry forward.
“When you have a group of men deciding solutions for an entire body of people, they might not think about most obvious answer,” she said. “The more ideas you bring in, the better ideas you will get.”
Technology is all about finding solutions for problems, and Subramaniam wants to see more diversity in where the solutions are coming from.
She is now creating her own solutions at Cisco -- she started working there this summer.