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Women and STEM: Progress and struggle

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Tech executive Demetria Menard learned how to write computing code as a high school student, and a male peer, perhaps a bit annoyed that she could match or exceed his skill level, cracked that girls like her ended up being housewives.

This was in the supposedly enlightened 1990s.

For a time, Menard was a housewife, but the urge to put her gifts to work at home and in the office was too strong to let go. Now a 15-year tech industry veteran, Menard has worked as a programmer, manager, and executive, climbing to COO of SwanLeap, one of Wisconsin’s fastest-growing companies.

Menard, who spoke at the recent Wisconsin WOMEN reception in Madison, touts the value of building inclusive workplaces. Learning to write software code gave her some direction, and despite the obstacles that still exist, she recommends that girls and women consider careers in science, technology, engineering, or math.

She is excited about the number of related workforce initiatives but acknowledges that diversification is hard. “Before we get to diversification, we need to be honest,” Menard says. “The tech industry is in an honesty phase where we see that it’s still Caucasian and male, but because we can see it, we’re attempting to change it.

“Diversification is difficult,” she adds. “The cool thing is there are a lot of people who are interested, but implementation is not as easy it could be.”

During her 35-year information technology career, Teri Bruns, a 2018 Women of Industry award winner, helped several young women climb the ladder. It’s one of the joys of being vice president of global partner solutions for VMWare, but bringing change to this male-dominated industry has its fits and starts. In 2014, women held 26 percent of computing occupations, and despite the growing number of programs focused on STEM education for girls, this number has only increased 2 percent in the past six years. Meanwhile, women ages 25–34 report greater dissatisfaction with their tech career prospects, citing a lack of inspiring role models, and 56 percent leave the industry in mid-career.

To diversify these high-paying occupations, which is essential to reduce the pay gap between men and women, Bruns believes women must be willing to go outside their comfort zone. “We are being more inclusive but it’s not happening quickly enough, and frankly we don’t have enough women who started their careers 10 years ago, 20 years ago, in the field,” she notes. “So, it tends to get tougher and tougher.”

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