Patricia Titus, CISO at Unisys, found her enthusiasm for high-tech was ignited while in the Air Force assisting in intercepting Russian Morse Code communications during the Cold War. Living with her two children later in the Washington, D.C. area, she ended up at a company called Auspex Systems, learning to be a systems administrator mainly through on-the-job training.
Later she joined the Treasury Department as a technical adviser to the CIO Jim Flysik, eventually taking on a security role, all the while spending time listening to engineers at work and in conferences who loved to share their knowledge.
"I enjoyed their intellect and dialog," says Titus, noting, yes, it was usually a room full of men and a few women. "The men wanted you to be successful, too."
She credits John Stewart, now CSO at Cisco, for providing encouragement back in those early days.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she joined the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and got involved in IT security deployments there as CISO.
Now CISO at Unisys, where her job is coordinating with dozens of people for the Unisys network strategy and services, she's glad things have turned out as well as they have. Married last year to the acting CIO of the Department of Labor, Tom Wiesner, with a grown daughter now working in IT in government, high-tech has become a family affair.
Some women say they found themselves stepping up the ladder for ironic reasons.
Emma McGrattan, who manages the engineering team at open-source database firm Ingres, said back when Ingres was owned by CA, she was working for the then head of engineering, who gave her all his work to do.
"He got all the glory, and I got the hard work," she says. But when he left, it seemed natural to just make her head of engineering, and she didn't even have to lobby for it. About 25% of the Ingres IT engineers today are women.
McGrattan says she always liked computers and programming, and back in a private high school in Dublin, Ireland, her place of birth, an extracurricular computer class on Saturday helped her discover early on what she wanted to do as an occupation.
With it being a majority-male high-tech world, McGrattan says there's a sense of a role model when women like Linda Sanford, IBM's senior vice president of enterprise transformation, climb the ladder to success over the span of their career.
Living now just outside New York City, she says she likes the fact the "job is very portable" and that she manages a team of employees in Europe and America, which makes it fairly convenient to let her pop over and see her family in Ireland.
Sherita Ceasar, vice president of cross-platform applications and engineering services at Comcast in Philadelphia, is in charge of about 60 employees, mostly engineers, to develop digital services that increasingly blend elements of the telephone, TV and PC.
A graduate of Illinois Institute of Technology with a master's degree in mechanical engineering, Ceasar relishes leading a development team responsible for defining road map services at Comcast. As an African-American woman, she is a statistical anomaly in the broader ranks of high-tech upper management.
As to the early factors that contributed to her ability to excel academically, Ceasar credits the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) program of 30 years ago which had an "early identification program" that went into high schools to encourage students with the top grades to go into engineering. It was a successful program, she says, that attracted a significant number of African-American students, in addition to all manner of young adults, to enter engineering through work-study programs and stipends. That IIT program has unfortunately not been kept vibrant, but there are efforts to revive it, and the country as a whole would probably benefit from similar efforts, she says.
"The journey for women is not paved so smooth that we can be complacent," Ceasar says. "But I think that times are truly evolving in a positive direction."
Tyelisha Shields, a young African-American woman who hails from Concord, N.C., can testify to the power of mentoring that helped her pursue her goal of a master's in computer science and information security at Carnegie-Mellon University's Information Networking Institute. Shields, who has a B.S. in computer science, has received a scholarship to study at the graduate level at CMU, thanks to funding provided by the Executive Women's Forum (EWF) scholarship program.
Grateful to Dena Haritos Tsamitis, director of the CMU program, and Joyce Brocaglia, who heads EWF, Shields says she's determined to make it, despite being brought up in a single-parent home, noting graduate work is important to be competitive in today's job market.
But Shields also notes the irony that she is the only American in her current study program, with most of her classmates from India and elsewhere.
"The majority of my classmates are foreigners," she says. "And my Southern accent is hard for them to understand, and their accents are hard for me to understand." That has the impact of isolating people.
When the 1950's musical "My Fair Lady" had the fictional British Professor Henry Higgins singing "Why Can't a Woman be More Like a Man?" there was nobody on stage to sing back an answer. But Haritos Tsamitis observes that young men and women don't necessarily find the same things appealing.
When male students want to take a break, she notes, "they tend to do paintballing or touch football or go drinking at the local pub or smoke cigars," activities that female students seldom chose.
To give female engineering students alternatives that allow them to "just be themselves," says Haritos Tsamitis, there are separate activities for them, "like chocolate tasting or watching a chick flick."
The male students are invited to attend special events hosted by the women's group, though some male students may complain about why there's a separate group for women at all and not one for men. It's a debate she knows will probably always be there, but Haritos Tsamitis says this women-only group "creates an opportunity for women to connect and create professional development through mentoring."
Some women in the IT field say mentoring is something they say they benefit from well into their careers.
Women in Cable Telecommunications (WICT) is a 30-year-old Chantilly, Va., organization dedicated to women's participation in that industry, pay equity and women's advancement. It fosters leadership training in which small numbers of professional women join retreats in their vicinity for management-style confabs with their female peers.
"It was a godsend," says Egan, noting her company Comcast has backed the effort. The WICT estimates that 15% of all technology jobs in the cable telecommunications industry are held by women - which includes designing or deploying software and hardware - based on information provided by the industry.
"Having more women gives a balance of perspective, it's a diverse set of experiences," says Vicki Hamilton, senior vice president for enterprise performance at Turner Broadcasting System's operations and strategy group, who leads a team of 10 that takes responsibility for high-tech projects across Turner to align with business goals.
Women are major purchasers of high-tech software and services, and having them there contributing to their development just makes sense, say many women professionals.
One analyst who has watched the world of high-tech and executive management for a long time say women professionals do tend to bring a certain "sensibility," especially in communications skills often defined as '"female traits" that men should be more inclined to emulate, not disparage.
Men too often try to lead through directives, says David Foote, CEO and chief research officer at consultancy Foote Partners.
"Look, I've said to male executives, taking them aside when I was sure none of their employees were listening, and told them that the military-style command and control isn't working, you need patience, listening is an intuitive approach to effect change," Foote says. "I've said, seriously, if there's a lot of 'female' in you, that's a good thing, not a bad thing."
This story, "Women in IT: Success and Struggle" was originally published by Network World.