Q&A: What separates women from men in tech careers

A conversation with Margaret Dawson of HP Cloud Services about why the gender divide persists in tech careers.

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Some people dismiss the gender divide in tech careers by arguing that men and women are wired differently. They say men are "logical and analytical" and women are "intuitive and creative." Even if that's true, it shouldn't dictate the types of careers people pursue.

This spring, Margaret Dawson, vice president of product marketing and cloud evangelist for HP Cloud Services, spoke about this issue at the Women in Technology lunch panel at Interop. I spoke to her recently while writing a story about some new campaigns designed to encourage women to pursue tech careers. This Q&A shares some of Dawson's insights that didn't make it into the original story, but were too valuable to leave "on the cutting room floor."

The gender divide in IT is rooted in a person's formative years. I remember only one girl taking my high school's computer science class. What was your experience like, and do you think the industry has made as much progress as it should have at this point?

Margaret Dawson: It sounds like your experience wasn't much different from mine, and it's unfortunate because it seems like we haven't gotten very far. I took a computer science class in college, and I think I was the only girl in the labs, but I don't remember anyone asking if I liked it -- it was almost a, 'Why are you taking that class?' kind of mentality. Girls get steered away from things that people consider them [to be] 'not so good at.' I still see it today with my own kids in school. I have seen parents, with the best intentions, saying things like, 'We are going to take our daughter out of the gifted program because we want her to have more time with her friends.' I think we start to make decisions when they are younger that we think are in the best interest of the child, but what [they] does instead is start to filter down the options the child has as they move forward.

Women can gravitate toward the tech industry even if they didn't pursue it in college. Do you think most people -- men included -- are under the impression that having a tech career automatically means you must be an "IT guy?"

Dawson: Yes, and right, there isn't one path leading to tech. I started in marketing in the auto industry, I then became a journalist, and that's where I started learning about tech and found I was very interested in it, and I was good at learning about [it]. People tend to think, 'I don't have a computer science degree,' or, 'I can't code,' but we need more business and go-to-market brains too, we need a lot of personalities in tech companies in order to be successful, so there are many ways we can get involved ... even if we aren't coding.

More on women in tech careers

Women in technology: Communication differences between genders

Female CEO discusses absence of women in IT

How women in tech can break the glass ceiling

Why do women believe they can't "fit in" in tech careers?

Dawson: I don't think it's so much 'fitting in.' I personally haven't really seen conflict between the genders in any tech company I've ever worked in, but that being said, I think we need to make a conscious effort as leaders -- and that goes for men and women -- to find those women that have potential and encourage them to push the boundaries. It doesn't mean everyone is going to be a leader, but I have found some women take off and really blossom in a new role. And while it's not just women, I think that sometimes you have to seek out women specifically because they don't lack skill, but some might lack the confidence or belief that [they] can be something greater. And [women have to] stop apologizing for everything!

As a professional in the industry, have you seen anything else that separates men from women?

Dawson: I can tell you that one of the things that separates men from women is this willingness to take huge risks. I think it has to do with giving women permission to be who they are; if they love video games or technology, we should be embracing that. It sounds obvious, but it just doesn't happen. And especially in tech careers, we need that creativity and for people to contribute what they know and what they can do.

 Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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