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The Difference a Generation Makes

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A mother who worked in tech in the 1980s explains the differences between her career and her daughter’s career as a software engineer. 

By Debra Woods (Academic Director, O’Reilly School of Technology)

My daughter Madelin recently wrote an article for Women 2.0 entitled “What Is Square Doing to Build a Female-Friendly Culture.”After reading it, I reflected back at the beginnings of my own career as a young woman in a male-dominated environment. In 1980, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, I began my career as a software engineer at TRW. After being the only woman in my university classes, it was good to find work that also included other women. In fact, I had never had a woman math professor, nor had I ever met women in any STEM profession.

Although we never formed any formal women specific organizations and our company didn’t identify us as any specific group, we would have our own “power woman” lunches and other such events. But, mostly, any activities and group communication was done in conjunction with our male counterparts. Since there was no email, social networking nor internet, we didn’t have a more global network of women with whom to collaborate at our disposal. We were more isolated only knowing the other women in our own division of our company. Fortunately for us, TRW had quite a few female engineers on staff.

From these women, I learned a lot. The lessons I learned from them I still carry with me today. Going through college with only male friends and only engaging in male-dominated activities like martial arts at the time, I had not learned how to talk to women, nor even how to dress professionally. Most importantly, through my engagement with my female colleagues, I learned how to be friends with women.

In my later career in higher education, I’ve had the pleasure of working with and guiding many young women at the University of Illinois as well as women I have met through more global project collaboration. I continue to follow their careers and offer guidance or have a chat whenever they ask. In fact, my career path has merged with some of them.

A goal I had was to raise my own daughter to be successful in life with no gender barriers to her success. I taught her to find her life’s passion and build upon it. Although I was unable to spark my daughter’s interest in math and science, I was successful in raising a young woman who is quite adept, becoming a software engineer in her own right at utilizing her creative talent in art and design. I am happy to see that a generation later, I have raised a happy, successful young woman who mentors other young women and who is already making a difference in the world.

For some years, I worried when I would see groups of professional women form groups to whine about how the males in their fields weren’t treating them fairly. It warms my heart to see this young generation of women engaging in positive, inclusive activities that show the world how awesome they are as team members, professionals and individuals.

About the guest blogger: Debra Woods is the Academic Director at O’Reilly School of Technology. She has over 25 years experience teaching, developed the first online courses offered at the University of Illinois, was awarded the prestigious Innovator Award from Wolfram Research, and gives talks and workshops globally on teaching computer-based math. Prior to her career in education, Debra worked as a software engineer at TRW. 

Photo credit: Casey Fleser