A new era for women in tech

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Sitima Fowler, co-CEO of Capstone IT, has encountered different views on women in her field. (Photo courtesy of Sitima Fowler)

Sitima Fowler had been co-CEO of Capstone Information Technologies for roughly two years when she learned she couldn’t make the first sales call on a client. Instead, Mike Fowler, her husband and co-CEO, saw the head of the undisclosed company. Mike, at that time, was the Capstone brand.

“When he got there, the CEO said, ‘Thank goodness it’s you. I thought some girl I couldn’t even pronounce her name was going to show up,’” Sitima recalls.

That happened around 2008. Since then, Capstone has been a fast-growing company, earning a place on the Rochester Top 100 list for three years running. The firm, now known as Capstone IT, is part of Dallas-based Iconic IT LLC, a newly formed group that provides managed information technology services across the country. 

Sitima remains Capstone’s co-CEO, and handles its Rochester and Buffalo divisions. Her husband is CEO of Iconic IT.

Women in technology firms have long complained of unfair, illegal or abusive treatment at the hands of their superiors and colleagues, and recent research supports their claims. A 2019 report by the job-search company Hired Inc. states that of 2,600 tech workers surveyed, 65 percent of women felt discriminated against on the job because of their gender, and 40 percent of them felt higher-ups didn’t take them seriously. A whopping 60 percent of the time, men who applied at their companies were offered higher salaries than female applicants for the same types of positions.

In some cases, gender biases can take an even darker turn. “The Elephant in the Valley,” a 2015 survey of 200 women in high-level positions in Silicon Valley companies, found that 60 percent of respondents had been subjected to unwanted sexual advances while on the job—most of which came from their superiors. A third of those surveyed worried about their personal safety because of the circumstances at their jobs. Fear of retaliation prevented 40 percent of the women who were subjected to such indignities to avoid reporting them.

Silicon Valley giants have been rocked by claims of gender bias—or worse. After an investigation of sexual harassment complaints, Uber fired 20 employees in 2017. Google has been subjected to a string of lawsuits in the past year; one plaintiff said she’d been subjected to pranks, lewd comments and even physical violence while on-the-job. By the end of 2018, the tech company had fired almost 50 people due to sexual harassment

At least some of the unfair, unethical or illegal actions to which women in technology fields have been subjected might arise from male domination of those fields. A 2018 report from the marketing firm Statista states that among eight major U.S. tech firms, the percentages of women employed in tech jobs ranged from 17 percent to 30 percent. Twenty percent to 47 percent of the leadership positions at those firms were held by women. By contrast, women made up close to 47 percent of the U.S. workforce that year. 

Bucking the trend

Despite what appears to be a serious problem in the tech world, negative attitudes toward women do not appear to be common at Rochester-area companies—at least, according to those who spoke to the Beacon. 

Jaime Eisenhauer, vice president of people and culture at Innovative Solutions, says local companies appear to be striving for greater gender inclusivity. 

“I believe many of those leaders have a pulse on what it takes to build more of an inclusive environment for both male and female technical talent,” Eisenhauer says.

Innovative Solutions, which provides a variety of IT services to small and midsize companies, began making its own strides toward greater inclusivity in 2017.

“We wanted (to) really be providing more of an environment that would allow women to thrive, and be eligible for promotion, and be part of the leadership conversation,” Eisenhauer says.

Though the firm has not set gender-based hiring quotas, it has strived to acquire the diverse workforce that its customer base requires. 

“In many cases, we’re working with several decision-makers, and some of them are women,” Eisenhauer explains.

To those ends, Innovative Solutions has created policies and other measures that are intended to make the firm more attractive to a diverse workforce. These include flexible work schedules and arrangements that allow employees to more easily care for children and family members. The company’s efforts might be working. 

“We’ve added females in technical roles and leadership roles, where they’re really able to steer the direction of the company,” Eisenhauer says.

The firm, which had no women in leadership positions in 2014, now has three: the directors of marketing and finance, plus Eisenhauer. Altogether, 20 percent of the 65 people on its payroll are females. 

eHealth Technologies Inc. CEO Jeff Markin says the kind of gender bias found in some parts of the tech world is a “foreign” concept to him.

“I know it happens. It’s just that I haven’t tended to work with people like that,” Markin says. “Maybe I’ve been lucky.”

eHealth, which provides medical record transmission, retrieval and organizational services for leading health care facilities nationwide, depends upon its employees to help keep its workforce diverse.

“We’ve found that if we hire diverse candidates, that we’re able to use them to help recruit diverse candidates, as well,” Markin says.

The practice is in play at the West Henrietta firm. Of the 300-plus people on its payroll, 65 percent are female—a much higher portion than found at most technology companies. Women make up 45 percent of the company’s executive leadership team.

Judy Miller, who has worked for decades in IT for major companies and as a consultant, remembers how it felt when she started her first job. 

“It’s obvious to notice when you’re the only female in the room and on the team,” she says. 

Miller co-founded and became the CEO of Miller & Associates, a Rochester-area IT talent-search firm. She does not deny that the stories out of Silicon Valley might be true, but insists that women have “made tremendous strides” in those fields over the years.

“An affinity to working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) might also work to their advantage now, because there are so few women with the right skill sets in certain areas,” she explains.

Miller, who also sits on the board of the nonprofit TechRochester and heads its Women in Technology Peer Group, says other women working at local tech firms have not spoken of experiencing biases on the job. 

“The stories I hear are the positive, uplifting ones; it’s not about grievances,” Miller says.

Staying strong

Sitima Fowler encountered different views of women at her first two jobs. Fresh out of college with an engineering degree, she spent eight years at Xerox Corp.’s Webster campus. She still counts herself as fortunate to have found her first engineering job with Xerox.

“Xerox knew that this was a field that they have to embrace women, if they want to retain women,” she says. 

Fowler found herself among comrades—about half of the new engineers Xerox hired each year back then were women—and able to call upon highly-placed female mentors for guidance and assistance.

“Whenever there was an issue where I felt like I was getting overlooked for promotions … my mentors were always able to clear a path for me, counsel me,” Fowler says.

That mentoring prepared her for the challenges at her second job, as a project development manager at General Motors’s Honeoye Falls facility, where she spent six years helping to develop cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

“There was a lot of that old-boys network,” Fowler recalls. 

She had to work harder and know more than the men around her, and push harder to get ahead.  

“In a way, it made me better, because I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Fowler says.

After six years with GM, Fowler headed to Capstone to help grow the company, and eventually came to run its Rochester and Buffalo divisions. She has never forgotten the value of the mentoring she’s received.

“When I mentor women, whether here at Capstone or at universities around here, I give that kind of guidance, and try to open doors for women,” she says.

Though Capstone doesn’t hire based on gender, more female than male job candidates seem to have both the technical training needed to work there and the personal qualities the firm desires.

“The women that we have here at Capstone have a certain empathic emotional trait that is amazing,” Fowler explains. “When you understand the person sitting across from you—where they’re coming from—and (are) able to assess the situation quickly, and able to deal with it quicker, you get better results.”

Slightly more than one-quarter of Capstone’s 35 employees are women, Fowler says. 

Since that CEO called Fowler “some girl,” her face has been part of Capstone’s brand. 

“I guess I’ve never sent the guy a thank-you note, but maybe I should,” Fowler says.

Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

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