Women make up almost 51% of the population but still struggle to get and stay in tech careers. Corporate giants like Wal-Mart Stores and IBM have made gains in adding women to the tech ranks and are also working to retain them by taking part in STEM education programs across the country, according to speakers at the first Women in Tech Conference held in Rogers on Monday (Oct. 16).
Tech professionals from Wal-Mart, Salesforce, Bank of America, IBM and local shops like RevUnit and WhyteSpyder were among those who took part in presenting informative sessions at the conference.
Faye Olsen, vice president of digital enterprise solutions at Wal-Mart, said during her session the retail giant is working to innovate technology applications that make corporate systems run more efficiently and also those which are customer-facing to improve overall shopper experiences. She said it’s just as important for Wal-Mart to innovate and use technology to make store operations run smoothly as it is to make sure shoppers have the latest and greatest apps to enhance their experience.
“If you go to work in a store and the systems are archaic for our associates, then how can we expect them to deliver a seamless shopping experience if they don’t have that ability in doing their jobs? It’s about making sure our associates have consumer-grade systems to use as they serve our customers. In the future our store associates could have the ability to use their mobile device to sign up for the hours they want to work in the store they want,” Olsen said.
When asked how Wal-Mart is using artificial intelligence (AI) within its own business, Olsen said there is an application in Human Resources that deals with store managers having to screen thousands of applications for new employees which takes them off the store sales floor. She said machine learning screens employment applications and sets up appointments with the top five candidates which the manager can then interview. Olsen said machine learning is being used in various departments at Wal-Mart, not to replace humans but to enhance employee productivity.
For as fast as technology is moving, Olsen said she sees tons of potential as data of all kinds is interconnected like never before, but on a personal level it’s kind of scary.
“Think about sitting down beside someone and looking into your phone and being able to instantly know about the stranger sitting next to you. As a retailer having that kind of data on our customers is really exciting because it will allow for better and more personal service, but as a consumer I am a still kind of uncomfortable with it,” Olsen said. “As technology becomes more widely adopted, our tolerance level increases for others knowing more. … I think I was the last holdout signing up for direct deposit at my former employer several years ago, because early in my career I had a tech job helping people recover lost funding errors.”
Julie Hansen, executive advisor with Salesforce, spoke on the impact to the overall workforce in the coming years because of increased technology applications such as AI, machine learning and robotics. Hansen joked that if all anyone did was read the headlines, anyone with a job today could be scared of being replaced by robots and automation. She said these same claims were being made in a 1961 Time Magazine article.
Hansen said she’s continually amazed at the number of new jobs influenced by technology. She said 65% of children entering primary school today are likely to find themselves in roles that do not yet exist. Two futurist jobs she mentioned included: body part harvester and extension revitalist. Some other up-and-coming jobs influenced by technology as of 2014 include:
• Driverless Everything: Automated traffic architects and engineers, driverless ride experience designers, emergency crews
• IOT: Lifestyle auditors, efficiency consultants, Avatar relationship managers
• Learning-Micro Colleges: School designers, brew master college, drone pilot school, 3D food printing chef school
• Energy: Micro grid strategists, mass energy storage developers
• Sensors: Sensor inventors, designers and engineers, data stream organizers, failure point assessors
Hansen said robots are not going to take over the world, but they can make humans more productive by performing some of the routine tasks normally done by humans. She said Amazon has about 45,000 robots at work in its warehouses and yet it has created thousands of new jobs for people at the same time.
“Predictable work can be automated such as data collection and processing, unpredictable work, managing other and applying expertise still requires human insights,” she said.
WOMEN IN THE TECH WORKFORCE
A main thread running through the various breakout sessions was the impact of technology in the workplace and the lack of women sitting at the tables of innovation. Just 25% of technology-related jobs in the U.S. are filled by women. Another bothersome stat indicates 41% of the women working in technology leave their jobs because they find little or no way to advance.
Robbin Imel, director of Walmart Labs in the Washington, D.C. metro area, said she joined the retail giant three years via an acquisition and she has spent her entire career in technology as a black women.
“It was 10 years before I worked with another female and 15 years before there was a woman of color as my colleague,” Imel said during a panel discussion at Monday’s event.
Imel said she didn’t want to work at a place where she was an “other” and that was when they worked hard to not recreate the things they hated. She said that was the entire group’s passion as they launched the DC shop of Walmart Labs. Imel said she is able to mentor and support STEM education programs and share her story with other women who want and should have a seat at the tech table.
Olsen spent 22 years as a technology professional – the past 3 with Wal-Mart – and said there aren’t enough men on the planet to fill all the tech jobs that will be created in the future. She said in the next 20 years 71% of all jobs will be in the STEM arena — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. She said women make up about 51% of the population and it’s a basic math problem.
“If all men went into STEM careers we still wouldn’t have all the people we need,” Olsen said.
When asked about how she managed to move up the ranks in a mostly male job sector, Olsen said she had several good mentors and she admitted it took her longer than some to be promoted to the vice president level. She said it’s important for women to continue learning and do the best job they can even when they may be passed over for promotion.
“Don’t let yourself be a victim and don’t take on a victim’s mentality. Examine the situation and know it may not be because you aren’t in the ‘Good Ole’ Boys Club’, especially if two or three other men also didn’t get the job. If you aren’t promoted it’s not always because you’re a girl,” Olsen said. “Watch how you frame the facts in your head.”
Hansen said Salesforce is aware of the lack of females working in technology or STEM careers. She said while 74% of middle school girls are interested in STEM, but just 0.4% of high school girls choose computer science majors. Today she said just 18% of all computer science majors are women, down from 37% in 1984. Hansen said too often women in the field they can’t see themselves advancing.