Women across IST at Penn State are creating a 'culture of empowerment'

Students, faculty, alumni are empowering themselves and each other to shatter the gender gap in tech

Left to right are Nandita Suresh, Adanna Nedd, Rebekah Long, Cassidy DiPaola, Kathyleen O'Leary, Alair Moody-Daniels, Bailey MacDowell and Pooja Patel, just a few of the growing number of female students in Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology who have been influenced by — and are influencing — the college's efforts to recruit and retain more women in technology fields.  Credit: Hayley Wildeson / Penn StateCreative Commons

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the fall 2019 edition of iConnect magazine.

"Diversity in Tech is a great driver of innovation." "Women can impact social change through tech." "I code so future girls know that they can, too."

Those are just a few of the many inspirational messages shared by women in the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology during the college’s “Sit With Me” initiative, which was held as part of the global campaign powered by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) to recognize and validate the important role women play in creating future technology.

Throughout the college, members of the IST community were encouraged to “Sit with Me at IST” to share empowering messages while seated in an iconic red chair. The objective was to raise awareness for the limited number of women in many computing careers and highlight IST’s various efforts and initiatives to increase their representation.

Globally, there is a significant gender gap in the tech industry. According to the NCWIT, just 26% of professional computing jobs are held by women.

“The information sciences and technology field has an extraordinary power to help us solve real-world problems,” said Allie Ellison, assistant director of undergraduate recruiting in the college. “A computer or data point alone cannot change the world. It takes people to put it into action.”

She added, “We need to develop a diverse and inclusive talent pool that takes into account different perspectives in the problem-solving approach to determine the best solutions and implement the life-changing technologies that impact all of us.”

Ellison is on the front lines of helping to develop this diverse talent pool, working to attract and retain more incoming female students in the College of IST. While the college is not immune to the gender gap, the percentage of female students enrolled in IST’s undergraduate and graduate programs has significantly increased since 2013.

Much of that growth can be attributed to the atmosphere in the College of IST, built by faculty, staff, students and alumni who are helping to create a supportive environment where women can be successful in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

“I think it’s incredibly important to be mindful of the ways that each individual woman who comes through the doors and is successful in IST becomes part of the answer to address the inequalities that exist in the field,” said Jason Gines, assistant dean of inclusion and diversity engagement in the College of IST. “Every touchpoint we have to encourage, empower and advance their careers is directly linked to addressing these larger structural inequalities.”

Taking Their Seat at the Table

For many, a strong professional network is critical to build a successful career. But when the number of women in tech careers is small, women in the field often lack the role models, mentors and opportunities they need to grow their networks.

College of IST students and staff at the 2019 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

As president of the Women in IST (WIST) undergraduate student organization, Bailey MacDowell, senior in security and risk analysis, knows the importance of developing a strong support network — and she’s working with her peers and college leadership to change this dynamic. She was one of more than 20,000 individuals who attended the 2018 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing — the world’s largest gathering of women technologists. There, MacDowell and 11 of her IST classmates participated in a series of keynote talks, presentations, workshops and networking sessions.

“It was refreshing and empowering to feel that I belonged among this group of powerful and hardworking women,” said MacDowell, who attended the conference thanks to financial support from the college and IST corporate sponsors. “As members of a community that rarely has the chance to unite, individuals truly embraced each other. The community felt welcoming and energized, ready to take on whatever challenges came next.”

Six of the 12 participants from the college returned from the conference with an internship or full-time job offer, while others were offered an interview with recruiters they met at the conference.

Rita Griffith, assistant director of student professional development in IST’s Office of Career Solutions and Corporate Engagement, who coordinates the annual trip, said the Grace Hopper Celebration serves as a reminder that even though women have been traditionally outnumbered in the technology industry, their knowledge is no less valuable and their accomplishments are no less worthy of celebration than anyone else’s.

“You are here for a reason,” said Griffith at one of the group’s preparatory meetings. “Don’t minimize yourself physically, mentally or emotionally. Speak up and make sure you’re taking your seat at the table!”

Bringing her authentic self

When Alair Moody-Daniels, senior in information sciences and technology, first came to the College of IST last year as a change-of-campus student, she found herself in a unique situation. Not only was she a woman in a predominantly male field, she was also a woman of color.

Alair Moody-Daniels applies skills she learned in the classroom in her real-world experiences. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

“I didn’t see many students who looked like me or who I could relate to day to day,” she said. “As one of the only black girls in the classroom, and with a focus on group work in IST, I wondered if other students would respect my work and my opinions.”

According to a 2018 Kapor Center, Pivotal Ventures and Arizona State University’s Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology study, women of color make up less than 10% of all bachelor’s degree recipients in computing. And, among all women employed in computer and information science occupations, just 12% are black or Latinx.

“Diversity is important in the tech industry and in creating technologies,” she said. “If we are trying to deliver innovative solutions to clients, and only have the reflections or output of one group, that’s not representative of society. Being able to include women and people of color and different backgrounds and sexual orientations will really speak to that.”

At the College of IST, Moody-Daniels found support and motivation through the Office of Inclusion and Diversity Engagement; the Office of Career Solutions and Corporate Engagement; and the Women, International, Racial, Ethnic Diversity Intercultural Network (WIRED IN) student organization, of which she currently serves as president. This past summer, she landed a project management internship  with a confidential client at PwC, where she helped to digitally transform the client’s legacy systems with new technology solutions.

“I was able to provide my technical knowledge, business acumen, and leadership qualities to deliver innovative technology solutions for clients,” she said. “The opportunity to be a part of a team with diverse cultures, perspectives, and experiences, and being able to contribute as an intern, is a phenomenal feeling.”

In just over a year, Moody-Daniels said that she went from feeling like an anomaly to feeling like anything is possible — and she hopes to pass that along to fellow underrepresented students.

“Everybody faces some sort of adversity,” she said. “When people see me, I hope that they see empowerment and walking hope. Being able to do what I did in a short time and making an impact sets the tone for what opportunities the College of IST offers.”

She added, “I would encourage students to bring their authentic selves to the College of IST. The faculty and staff will work with you and help you learn your strengths within. I am confident that you will leave here and know that you have unique individualism and can excel.”

The Power to Innovate

Kathyleen O’Leary, senior in information sciences and technology, has dedicated her undergraduate career to empowering individuals — especially women — by providing resources and guidance to increase access to technology education.

Kathyleen O'Leary shares a powerful message during the College of IST's "Sit With Me" campaign. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

At Penn State, O’Leary has helped to organize HackPSU, a collaborative case study competition, and has attended several other hackathons across the country. She serves as an event manager for Major League Hacking, the official student hackathon league that organizes 250 events annually for more than 135,000 across the globe, for which she travels throughout North America twice a month to coordinate event logistics.

“Our mission at Major League Hacking is to empower the hackers,” she said. “I’m so thankful because it aligns with my goals. I love the intersections of people and technology, and supporting the people learning and teaching others. That’s what really drives me.”

O’Leary has brought these experiences back to campus with her involvement with Code for Her, a Penn State Libraries organization that offers free coding workshops for female and gender-diverse students, faculty and staff. Code for Her strives to provide a welcoming learning environment for people of all backgrounds, free of judgment or intimidation while giving a flexible learning experience.

The feedback from the participating women has been very encouraging, says O'Leary.

"Our participants say they've become more confident not just with code, but in presenting themselves in conversations about technology," she said. "That has been so amazing to see."

She encourages women in technology to seek mentorship and engage with the opportunities offered by the College of IST. Her message in the "Sit With Me at IST" campaign reflected this inclusive and empowering attitude: "Diversity in tech because we all have the power to innovate."

Prospering in a male-dominated workforce

For students, each initiative, conversation and touchpoint helps to prepare female graduates for success in a male-dominated workforce. But the strong focus on empowering women in tech doesn’t end with graduation.

Madison Oliver, Penn State class of 2016 and an associate vulnerability analyst in the CERT Division at the Software Engineering Institute in Pittsburgh, feels fortunate to have been able to prepare for the real-world environment while still in college.

“At Penn State, I was in a lot of groups with primarily men, so being exposed to that so early was really helpful,” she said. “I’ve worked with a number of people who weren’t exposed to that until later and it was jarring to them. They didn’t know what to do or how to handle it. I felt very prepared.”

The percentage of women in the industry often decreases as one moves up through the ranks, according to Angela Liberto, class of 2004, who serves as senior corporate counsel for Dick’s Sporting Goods. In her role, she draws on her College of IST foundation and legal background to provide general counsel for the company’s technology business team and for the Team Sports HQ, an all-in-one service that provides youth team sports leagues with tech solutions, equipment, team uniforms and access to sponsorships and donations.

Like Oliver, Liberto felt positioned to succeed in the workplace after building her confidence in the College of IST.

“My advice [to female IST students] would be to trust in your abilities and keep a thick skin,” she said. “As a woman, you have as much of a right to be there as anyone else in the room. You deserve your seat at the table.”

A balancing act

With the already-low percentage of women working in tech, one might think that starting a family would cause those numbers to further dwindle. But for Alison Flanigan, class of 2005, she believes — and hopes she’s inspiring others to see — that there can be work-life balance in a high-profile career, even when you’re a leader in your company.

Alison Flanigan, a 2005 College of Information Sciences and Technology graduate, returned as a guest speaker during Penn State Startup Week in 2019. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Flanigan serves as a cyber project manager at Booz Allen Hamilton, where she manages a portfolio of almost 300 people. She is also a mom of four children.

“As a leader, you are asked to wear many hats,” she said. “The only way to truly be successful in finding balance while accomplishing outcomes is to develop and invest in a second team; the next generation of leaders. It would be hard to find a successful leader that operates on any teams of one.”

Her leadership abilities were apparent long before motherhood. While a student in the then-School of IST, she launched the idea for what would become Pro Expo, the college’s fall career fair.

“What I wanted to do was help fill the gap between IST’s internship requirement for students and the industry partners who were in need of this talent,” she said.

That first Pro Expo featured approximately 20 companies and 60 attendees. With this year’s event welcoming 72 recruiters and more than 1,000 students seeking internships or full-time employment, the event has outgrown its initial home on campus and is now held at the Nittany Lion Inn.

“Getting exposure, learning professional etiquette and gathering data about prospective employers are critical tools as young students are navigating their academic careers,” she said. “It will inform the decisions they make from electives, projects and research, as well as give them that broader exposure of what’s out there.”

Years later, at Booz Allen Hamilton, Flanigan was working as a deputy project manager and looking forward to the arrival of her third child. Then, right before she left for maternity leave, she was offered a promotion.

“It made me feel valued for my aptitude and my accomplishments,” she said. “Knowing that my leadership saw that I had long-term potential versus a short-term out-of-office was important, as well as the investment, empowerment and recognition of my abilities.”

Like Flanigan, Marina Medvin, class of 2006, has built a successful career and is embracing her role as both an advocate for women in the field and as a mother.

While she earned her law degree after graduating from Penn State — and has become an award-winning attorney and media legal analyst — she regularly draws on the technical foundation she built in the College of IST.

“I remember first thanking my lucky stars for my technology background when an FBI '10 Most Wanted' fugitive was being prosecuted for fraud involving technology, among other things,” she said.

While the gender gap in the legal industry isn’t nearly as high as it is in science, technology, engineering and math fields, women still represent just 38% of lawyers nationally, according to the U.S. Census.

Medvin has ignored the gender gap as she climbed up the ranks in her career, focusing on herself and her own abilities.

“I didn’t think about being a woman; I thought about being successful,” she said. “I didn’t worry about anyone else’s ‘domination’ and instead I concentrated on my own path to dominance. My state of mind made me stronger and made me a true contender.” 

She instills these values in her young daughter, whom Medvin considers her life’s greatest accomplishment.

“Family is the most important part of [my] life, and being able to balance my work and my family gives me the greatest sense of joy,” she said.

She passes lessons that she shares with her daughter on to current and future students — especially women — in the College of IST, with this advice:

“Be you. You are who you are. Love yourself. Embrace yourself. Concentrate on your strengths. Don’t let insecurity enter your mind. Don’t restrict yourself. Unleash yourself onto the world. Think strong and you will be strong.”

An opportunity to be excellent

Lynette Yarger, associate professor of IST, has devoted her research career to exploring the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in the information technology workforce. Her findings have influenced not only the workplace, but the end-user perspective as well. She came to Penn State as an educator after working a number of years in the communication technologies industry and earning her doctorate degree.

Associate Professor of Information Sciences and Technology Lynette Yarger's research gives a critical perspective of technology and how it can help — and how it might unintentionally hurt — underrepresented populations. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

“I saw through my research how important technology was in the world, and how it will continue to have more of an impact on people’s lives,” she said. “I was really struck by the difficulties people would face if they weren’t included, if they didn’t understand technology.”

She added, “I educate because not only do I want people to have the skills, but I think more importantly I want students to have a critical perspective about technology and think about how it can help and how it might unintentionally hurt groups of people.”

While Yarger continues to teach in the College of IST, she also is taking advantage of the opportunity to advocate for diversity and inclusion at Penn State. She recently accepted a part-time position as inaugural assistant dean for equity and inclusion in the Schreyer Honors College. She continues to advocate for the notion that females can greatly influence the tech industry — and that they can each measure their own success.

“When you think of women in technology, it’s often from this perspective that we’re underrepresented, that we have a harder way of things,” she said. “Not to diminish that, but I think that it also provides an opportunity to be excellent. If you work hard, if you try your best, if you set goal