Panelists encourage young women to consider careers in information technology

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 84 views 

A panel of women working in information technology for Acxiom, J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Tyson Foods and Wal-Mart Stores took questions from about 150 young women who are students from 14 area high schools.

The panel was part of the fourth Girls in IT event, a program to encourage women to consider careers in information technology, and it was hosted at Tyson Foods World Headquarters in Springdale. The program was developed by the Information Technology Research Institute of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Eric Bradford, managing director the Information Technology Research Institute, said the program helps to recruit more women IT students to the UA.

“There are not enough females in the field,” Bradford said.

In 2014, 57% of bachelor’s degree recipients were women, but only 17% of women received computer and information sciences bachelor’s degrees, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Diversity in computing is lacking, but the field offers some of the highest paying jobs. Entry level salary for IT jobs is $57,000 and runs “all the way into the six figures,” said Susan Bristow, assistant chair of the information systems department at the UA.

Bradford said the field is more than computer programming jobs and also includes business analysts, systems analysts, project managers and solution architects.

“A lot of students don’t know about the business side,” he said.

About 1.1 million computing-related jobs will be available by 2024, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, but nearly two-thirds could go unfilled because of the lack of college graduates with computing-related degrees.

“The focus of the event is really amazing to me,” said Annitre Edison, senior director of information system applications for Tyson. “It’s the idea you can do anything.”

Annitre Edison, senior director of information system applications for Tyson, was the keynote speaker for the Girls in IT event held Friday at Tyson Foods headquarters in Springdale.
Annitre Edison, senior director of information system applications for Tyson, was the keynote speaker for the Girls in IT event held Friday at Tyson Foods headquarters in Springdale.

Edison gave the keynote address, empowering women to be bold and encouraging them to pursue their passion. Edison, who lives in St. Louis, has worked in information technology for 20 years and previously worked for Hillshire Brands before joining Tyson. She travels between offices in Springdale and Chicago, while her children attend school where she resides.

Information technology was a career path she “fell into” after majoring in finance and accounting in college, she said. Edison also was one of the seven panelists who took questions from the young women in the audience.

Monica Kelly, director of technology for Bentonville-based Wal-Mart — whose daughter was in the audience as a student of Bentonville High School — said it’s a misconception that one cannot work in information technology and be a mother. Kelly, who’s leading the acquisition of Jet.com for Wal-Mart, said unlike men, women don’t always find fulfillment in their job, and often find it through other volunteer projects outside of work. But this allows her to take more risks. Two months ago she didn’t know anything about Jet. But somebody recognized her potential, and she was assigned to lead the acquisition for Walmart.

“I’ve never done mergers and acquisitions,” she said.

She also said sometimes “you are going to be the only girl” working on an information technology team.

“Put that behind you. Don’t make it about being a girl or being a guy,” she said.

According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, 57% of women work in professional occupations, but only 25% of women work in professional computing jobs.

Kelly said she left her career in information technology for eight years to raise her children, and worked to catch up in the field when she returned. In 2012, she earned a master’s degree in business administration from John Brown University. She joined the panel discussion to give back to the community and encourage more people to go into the technical field. This was her first time to participate in the program.

Jennifer Ford, director of the program management office for J.B. Hunt, was also a panelist and has been involved in the program for years. The transportation company hosted the first Girls in IT event.

“My daddy’s the reason I’m in IT,” she told the young women. She’s had several “strong mentors who have advocated for me.”

Monica Kelly, director of technology for Wal-Mart Stores, answers a question during the Girls in IT event held Friday at Tyson Foods headquarters in Springdale.
Monica Kelly, director of technology for Wal-Mart Stores, answers a question during the Girls in IT event held Friday at Tyson Foods headquarters in Springdale.

When asked about being mistreated by other women, Ford said she’s never felt as if a woman wasn’t supportive to her or “tore me down.” But Angie Graves, senior manager of audience solutions and data for Little Rock-based Acxiom, has had “one woman try to cut me down.”
Graves explained it often has to do with interpersonal skills. Sometimes one has to be more direct with people.

Jennifer Ortega, an analyst for Tyson, said finding a good mentor is important. She also talked about not being afraid to speak up.

“Even if you’re not sure what you’re about to say, say it,” she said.

Ortega, who began at Tyson as a high school intern, worked her way into a full-time position two years ago.

When the panelists were asked about salary, Becky Russell, vice president of sales and marketing applications for Tyson, said she makes enough to support four children and live a comfortable life. Kelly explained how cost of living is also important when considering salary.

“Don’t only consider salary, but where you live,” she said.

When asked about what motivates them, Russell said her team does. Edison said the “finished product” motivates her. When asked about what kept them striving for a position in information technology and not giving up, Graves said the opportunities. She explained how trying different things is common and allows one to grow.

“For me, I never had the chance to get bored and never wanted to quit. You don’t realize how many options you have the whole way through.”

Russell said “we need women in IT. We need a different perspective. If we only listened to a man, all we would eat is bacon.”

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