Linda Estep
From mentoring to mindset, women in ed tech reflect on experiences, opportunities

While her name may have been “lost” in the annals of computer science, or at best recognized by a scant few in the industry today, Ada Byron Lovelace’s keen mind and insatiable curiosity gave birth to the concept of artificial intelligence, having written the first-ever computer algorithm in the early 1800s.

An English mathematician and daughter of the flamboyant poet, Lord Byron, Lovelace was free-spirited, imaginative and intrigued with machinery. She was comfortable at the intersection of the arts and the Industrial Revolution, perhaps a precursor to the concept of steam, the integration of the arts into the STEM movement.

By rights, she was a true pioneer in the embryonic stage of computer development, yet this woman who managed to think outside the box before there ever was a box lives on the back pages of technology history. And she has plenty of female company there.

Today, while many women successfully make a difference in technology and establish names for themselves as leaders in that universe, their numbers are small compared to males holding similar positions. Issues such as salary inequality, non-recognition, barriers to career advancement and inappropriate conduct do exist (but in that regard technology is not a restricted neighborhood).

Why, 162 years after Lovelace’s death, is that still the case?

Altering a mindset

ISTE asked eight highly respected and successful women in ed tech to offer their perspectives, based on their own experiences and observations. Common threads ran through all of their thoughts, including the overall concept that networking, mentoring and peer-to-peer collaboration are essential for women who are new to the field, who are just beginning their journey or who are struggling. With the right mindset and guidance, they contend, barriers can be broken.

Ask what women can do to help themselves and you can almost hear those eight voices in unison: “Ladies, start your engines!”

“Women have a place at any table where anyone else has a place, but they don’t always realize that,” says Kecia Ray, ISTE chair and executive director of Learning Technologies and Library Services for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. “We have power and we need to use it in the field and not let gender get in the way.”

Ray and several other ISTE colleagues collaborated to form the new International Leadership Network for Women in EdTech, sketching out a mission to support leaders in ed tech, as well as those who aspire to lead. They launched it at ISTE 2014 at a breakfast meeting where leaders from all over the world convened.

“The women said it was so empowering. There were women from countries where we know women are not treated equally, and they were surprised to learn it is a global issue, that women in the Western world have the same thing,” Ray explains. She believes that the more colleagues talk about challenges in the workplace, hear from those who have found success and are willing to share, the easier the problems will be to overcome.

“Ninety percent of my interactions around my work in technology in my district are with men,” she says. “It is our responsibility to lay the groundwork and mentor others into this field to find to their own success.”

Part of the reason there are fewer women in the ed tech field could be that girls are not showing much interest in education careers, according to Ray. “That’s the first thing we need to do: Get them interested in education (then technology),” she says.

“I have talked to girls who don’t think they can even succeed in the technology field. I have women on my staff who say they didn’t realize they could do what they do now.”

Opportunities abound

Lillian Kellogg, vice president of client services with Education Networks of America and a longtime ISTE member, points out that only 30 percent of those who work in STEM fields are women, and that women are not generally paid as well as their male counterparts. She believes networks such as the one ISTE established can provide connections to help, and that self-esteem is often a barrier to entering ed tech or climbing steps to advancement.

She, too, was instrumental in creating the ISTE network and has long been involved in another support group for women in the industry, EdTechWomen. The difference in the groups is that the ISTE network focuses on women in public education.

Kellogg recalls hearing some women at an ISTE meeting lamenting, “I’m just a teacher, so how do I make a difference?”

That was an eye-opening statement to Kellogg, who admits, “I’ve never really had that lens.” Self-esteem is one of five pillars that support the mission of the new ISTE network. The others are career advancement, civil rights, culture and diversity. Kellogg stressed that women need to demonstrate their value, to believe in themselves and not rely on a sense of entitlement.

Erin Dwyer works for ISTE corporate member Smart Technologies and is the Northern California solutions manager. She’s in a position to observe trends in technology while networking with technology leaders in education. She believes there are opportunities in education to spark interest in technology, and that it will be in the STEM area. She points out that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1.4 million computer jobs will go unfilled by 2020.

“We must transform or go by the wayside,” she says.

Dwyer is a proponent of the popular book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, written by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. The book offers advice to women about taking charge and negotiating from strength.
Following powerful role models in the field and becoming involved in your community are two paths to success, according to Dwyer.

ISTE Chief Communications Officer Jodie Pozo-Olano was instrumental in organizing and defining the goals of the new network, and notes it will offer a peer-to-peer network exclusively for women who work in ed tech.

“Whether you’re celebrating or needing a boost, sometimes connecting with a trusted peer can provide the support you need. Over the course of my career, I’ve had countless informal mentors who have offered support and encouragement to me along the way. We are working to create an online, networked community where women can freely share their insights, find coaching or mentors, or just mutual support from peers. I definitely have a lot to learn, but I am excited about being involved in a group where I can pass along some of the wisdom that has been shared with me over the years,” Pozo-Olano says.

Participants will come from three categories: Female educators, women who work at ed tech companies and women who work at ed tech nonprofits, associations or in government positions.

Pozo-Olano says the network will grow by word of mouth and via the LinkedIn account established.

“No matter where you are in your career path, the purpose of the network is to offer support to all women who are passionate and committed leaders in education technology,” Pozo-Olano says.

Embrace the role

ISTE member Bonnie Bracey Sutton would likely bristle hearing a teacher wonder how she could make a difference. Sutton, a technology advocate, was inspired by her mother at a tender age to be a lifelong learner in a world that hasn’t always treated minorities fairly. She has a background that runs the gamut from classroom teacher to presidential appointee and working with NASA on educational programs. Her expertise in ed tech is well-documented, and she has a story to match every facet of her impressive and varied career. Teaching, though, seems to be her passion.

“People forget you don’t fill up kids’ heads with knowledge before you know who they are,” she says, emphasizing the different learning styles of children and identifying their interests.

She tells of teaching a boy who was about to be placed in a special education program early in her teaching career, but Sutton instead placed him in front of a computer and his learning took off. “He could think faster than he could write. That child and I explored technology together, and I spent every cent I had. That’s when I decided to learn about the internet. In technology, you can lead kids to their own interests and then lead them to what others are sharing.”

As for issues women who work in ed tech face, Sutton believes in the power of mentoring. “When you’ve been given a gift, you don’t want that gift to dissipate. I want people to have the opportunities I had.”

Sutton has succeeded in technology fields, including supercomputing, that are populated mostly by men. She also has been the recipient of sage advice and teaching from women before her in technology such as Grace Hopper, a celebrated computer scientist and U.S. Navy rear admiral. Hopper was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer and was another lifelong learner who believed in mentoring young scientists, encouraging them to discover by following their curiosity.

Grab the microphone

Sutton encourages women in ed tech to “Grab the microphone and tell your stories. Be more active. Find your truth and share. There are those of us who have our own network of friends. Networks can make it more powerful by giving stories to share so others can learn.”

She isn’t surprised at the notion that girls today are not showing much interest in teaching careers. “Teachers have been hammered for so long. Teaching is not glamorous. We need to give value to occupation. It is not just for pay. Teaching is beautiful, but to be a good one it takes a lot of experience.

“It is important that we model for girls, demonstrate the use of technology. Technology is not a man’s world, it’s everyone’s. If all girls see are men in it, they won’t try.”

One need not know Sutton for very long to know her reaction to the firestorm created last October when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella answered a reporter’s question about advice he had for women who felt timid or uncomfortable asking for a raise or promotion. His response was that women should trust the system and earn good karma from it.

“He will regret that statement for the rest of his life,” she says knowingly.

In an interview one week later on CNBC, Nadella commented on his highly criticized comment, admitting it was insensitive and incorrect and that efforts should and would be made to provide equal pay for equal work and equal access to jobs, beginning at Microsoft. Women make up 29 percent of Microsoft employees, according to a report in the Associated Press.

Better leaders

Kathy Hurley, a Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow and retired executive vice president at Pearson Education and Pearson Foundation, has co-authored a book with Priscilla Shumway titledReal Women, Real Leadership: Surviving and Succeeding in the Business World. It will be released in the spring and identifies attributes of 24 leaders they interviewed, asking them what made them such good leaders. The interviewees were from varied fields, ranging from high political office to artists and athletes.

Hurley, a longtime ISTE member and former board member, says in her career in ed tech, she picked men as her mentors because “men have done this forever.” She notes that girls are not always confident going into technology but that women make better leaders. She encourages women to broaden their exposure in gathering leadership skills by attending conferences, getting on community boards and inviting dynamic speakers to address groups.

“Women need to get involved in areas outside their major strengths and not stay in their own little world. Meeting others makes you a much better leader. Women bring different perspectives to the table, and things that used to be criticisms have made women more flexible. They are dealing with challenges all the time. I think women have unique leadership skills and can improve an organization as a whole,” Hurley says.

Bring femininity with you

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, an ISTE board member and CEO of Powerful Learning Practice, a professional learning company for educators, doesn’t believe women in general have a lack of confidence, but rather they are reluctant to bring their femininity to the table.

“My generation thought we had to become the man we want to marry,” she says, “but when you put both men and women at the table, you get the best results. I want women to be confident in who we are as women and willing to share that at the table.”

She believes there is much interest in ed tech for women, but that women need to break out of the mindset that they are not good at science. On the topic of women getting promoted, Nussbaum-Beach points out that often women don’t recommend other women for advancement, and it could be because women have been reluctant to speak up.

In most cases, she says, it is not a lack of confidence holding women back, it is a lack of skill sets to promote themselves and have a voice. She encourages women to be willing to share what they can contribute and to not fear what she refers to as “selfless self-promotion,” a topic she learned about at a TED conference she attended.

“If you believe in good ideas, shame on you if you don’t share them,” she says. “There is a way to share good ideas without sounding like ‘I’m better than you.’”

Nussbaum-Beach sees promise in the new ISTE network and hopes it will expand to offer webinars and a school for women where top male and female leaders could talk about leadership on topics covering everything from negotiations to how to dress for success.

Finally, she believes the future is wide open for all women in ed tech regardless of age if they can shed some old stereotypes. “I’m passionate about helping girls be comfortable being girls,” she explains. “It is important to understand gender balance.”

Helping girls achieve

Deb deVries, retired executive at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and a former ISTE board member, now joins her friend Kathy Hurley in grooming girls for success. The two are co-founders of a nonprofit called Girls Thinking Global that strives to connect global change-makers to adolescent girls worldwide. The organization’s mission is to create a global network of organizations serving girls and women to leverage resources, including money, to improve their quality of life.

Technology will enable access to education and mentoring resources. Two other co-founders, Harvard graduate school alumnae Cassandra Walker and Elizabeth Texeira, focus on establishing a database of international organizations working with adolescent girls to match skills and resources.

Over her 20-plus years in education and technology, deVries notes that she has enjoyed great career paths in ed tech, often helped by flexibility while raising a family. She has two adult daughters and shares her business wisdom with them, which often deals with issues she says “have been going on since the beginning of time,” referring to oft-mentioned sexual harassment in the workplace. “I will share with them the possibility of it happening but also counsel them on how to get out of a bad situation.”

As a working mom, deVries says that women with families can have it all, but not necessarily all at the same time. “Over the years, it has been important to get more flexibility. That is a female issue more than a male. It is cultural. Very few men assume the traditional role of women, and so you must make hard decisions along the way. I’ve found the more responsibility and experience I have, the more power I have in negotiations.”

Linda A. Estep is a former reporter for McClatchy newspapers and was the public information officer for a large school district in California. Today, she works as a freelance writer covering education policy.