Sandra Ashworth, Unisys’s global director of channel relations and warranty, is an evangelist for women in IT. A member of CompTIA for more than 20 years, she’s currently the chair of the organization’s Advancing Women in IT Community.
Ashworth’s been in the IT services industry for more than 30 years in capacities including field management, operations, vendor relations, customer service design/implementations and supply chain marketing. “I started out on an ad punch machine while I was in high school,” she says, laughing. Indeed, she’s been in the industry for so long that at one point she operated a Digital PDP 11/35.
Evolving Path for Women
Along the way she’s seen significant changes in the role of women in the IT workplace. Some of it’s been good but some of it hasn’t been. When facing discrimination because of her gender, Ashworth’s no-nonsense approach to other people’s stupidity has stood her well. While working as a district operations manager, she was regularly confused with the administrative assistant. Once, she was passed over for a senior level position, despite being told she was the most qualified applicant. “It was for a job in Saudi Arabia, so it’s not like I was surprised,” she says. “But at least I knew I was the best candidate for the job.” Bright spots she’s seen are a significant change in sexual harassment policies, as well as the generational shift that’s resulting in women achieving gender parity. While there are still stumbling blocks, it’s not like it used to be. “Not too long ago, women would be pressured to succumb and a lot of men would prey on women who had been raised to be subservient,” she says. Ashworth, who grew up in a house full of men – all of whom worked in construction – wasn’t a pushover. “I had a more blunt way of dealing with it. Let’s just say, ‘You get up off that floor and I will knock you back down.’ I wouldn’t put up with it, I wouldn’t tolerate it and I wouldn’t take it.” As for the concept of “leaning in,” she believes there’s value in doing so. Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller resonated with her, though she believes part of a larger mark was missed. “I think that in her (Sandberg’s) career path, she made a lot of concessions that I still don’t think are acceptable today.”
The Need at Mid-Level
While she’s somewhat cheered by the rise of women at the executive level in tech, Ashworth notes the dearth of women in the middle and lower levels. “There are women who are creeping up into those high levels but there’s a whole strata below them who are missing,” she says. “The trouble spots are services, technical operations and business. More women entering the field are going into sales, marketing and strategic development. The service end is lacking.” The talk about the lack of women in tech positions brings us back to CompTIA’s Advancing Women in IT Community, which is dedicated to encouraging women to enter the field, then empowering them with the knowledge and skills necessary to pursue successful careers. The group doesn’t focus on only young women, but works with veterans seeking employment post-military, people looking to re-enter after raising families and those who want to make a significant career change from another industry. If someone has the desire and ability to commit, Ashworth knows they can use their existing skills, build with additional training and find a good fit.
Educating for Reality
When speaking to groups of women, Ashworth often meets resistance about technology jobs and has to educate her audience. “I think that people still view IT as the guy with the screwdriver or something more mechanical than what’s it evolved into,” she says. “When I go out, I hear a lot of ‘I don’t want to go out and fix a computer.’ It’s now about software application and integrations. There are so many facets and verticals in IT.” The IT evangelist illustrated a successful approach during a recent gathering at a Chicago-area high school, where she met with girls in grades 9-12. One student was adamantly opposed to even taking a class in computing. She kept telling Ashworth that she wanted to go into fashion and had no need for tech. When asked if she’d ever been to a runway show, the young woman said she hadn’t and Ashworth pitched hard. “I let her know that everything at that show is dictated by electronics. When people design clothes they sit down at a CAD/CAM system and they sketch on a computer. They have software that brings in colors and textures of fabrics. The next day the director called me and said, ‘I’ve been after that girl for two years and she’s refused to take a computer class. You come in and in half an hour, her mind is changed and she’s signed up for classes.’ That’s an example of someone not understanding that computing can get you to your ultimate goal.”