Young women still aren’t flocking to careers in science and technology, and figuring out why can be a real head-scratcher.
They have the skills and academic wherewithal but still choose other disciplines, a University of Texas study showed. And researchers point out that female students often outperform male students in math and science.
So what gives?
Jeanette Prenger, founder and president of Ecco Select, an IT consulting firm in Kansas City, sees mostly culture and tradition at work. For some, the thinking persists that the so-called STEM fields are “male” vocations.
But Prenger bucked that notion three decades ago when she began her tech career, first as a computer programmer. In 1995 she launched her own company, an award-winning firm and one of the area’s top women- and minority-owned businesses.
Prenger was born in Portugal and her family lived there and in Spain until she was 5. The family moved to Kansas City in the early 1970s. Prenger married her college sweetheart, and they have two sons and five grandchildren.
We asked her about fostering a connection between women and tech careers, which is a comparative strength of the metro area. A study by SmartAsset, a financial technology company, recently ranked Kansas City as the second best U.S. city for women in technology. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation.
Q. How did you get started in the tech field?
A. My dad talked me into it! He was director of management information services, which is what they called it at the time, at TWA. He really encouraged me.
He knew it would be a field that would continue to grow and evolve. And he thought there would be a way to have more balance between family and work than in some other fields. We had lived in Portgual and Spain, and he said it would be like learning another language.
I majored in data processing at Central Missouri State (now the University of Central Missouri) in Warrensburg. I had an internship during senior year with the state of Missouri as a programmer.
Honestly, I didn’t think I would enjoy it as much as I have. It is a new language, and it’s also building something, like constructing a home. And it’s building things people use every day.
What was your first job out of school? What was the mix of men and women there?
After my husband graduated we moved to Kansas City, and my first job was as a programmer at Russell Stover Candies.
There were 20 people, and I think four or five were women. Some of the women had come from data entry positions and were working their way into programming.
Did other job opportunities come your way?
Yes, I averaged two to five years at several places. I was recruited by co-workers who had moved on. They’d reach back and tell me how much better I could be, but I always had good relationships with the companies I left.
My father worried that it would look bad on my resume, that it would look like I was job-hopping. But now it’s considered a way to learn new skills, to take on new challenges and build your resume. Sometimes it’s the best way not to get pigeonholed into something.
Characterize what it was like being in such a male-dominated field. Did you ever feel disrespected as a woman?
I don’t think I felt disrespected as much as I felt I had to work harder than the guys did. At that time, there were no excuses about the fact that you had a family. You didn’t want anyone to think your family would get in the way of your career.
And I felt once in a while that when I presented ideas, I had to work harder for them to see it. I always viewed a project with the end-user in mind. My angle was always, how easy is it to use and does it meet our objectives?
So did male colleagues question your commitment? Did you hear objectionable comments?
Absolutely. You would never let someone know that you had to take care of a sick child or leave early for an appointment for your kids, or you would be subjected to feeling like your priorities weren’t in the right place.
And I was disappointed when I heard that male colleagues would justify that I received promotions because I was a woman and a minority, that I was a “double check mark.”
They forgot all the nights and weekends I worked. And that I took on challenges that nobody else was working on. I don’t know if they were trying to make themselves feel better. But those are the types of comments I know other women have had to deal with and ignore.
Were there any female mentors for you?
There weren’t that many women in executive positions at the time, but there were two women at TWA who took the time to guide me. They really helped me in terms of growing a career and balancing that with family.
To be frank, I never had a problem working with any male managers or directors. I believe they looked at what I could provide, how I could add value.
We still think in traditional gender roles at times. Do you try to be a gender role model?
It’s true, we do fall into that, and it’s not always on purpose. I’ve even found myself subconsciously being more traditional with my own grandchildren.
I have one granddaughter and four grandsons, and for presents the grandsons get things you give boys — sports stuff, cars. I give my granddaughter stuff for dance and dolls. We have to make it a point to let them try things, so that it’s their choice if they want something different from the way I was raised.
I’ve spoken at high schools and colleges and at organizations for young professionals. I tell them that one of the things I’ve loved about being in IT is that I get to solve problems. I get to build systems that make people’s lives easier. I’m a people-pleaser.
Do you feel you have to sell it to young women?
Yes, but I do think it’s starting to become an easier sell. I think of it a little like the medical field, where women are more drawn to nursing and as lab techs and not as many aspire to be doctors.
I think we women often sell ourselves short, that it’s a gender thing that we aren’t going to be as good in certain areas.
That’s this persistent idea that tech fields are for men, that women aren’t as mathematical, as analytical, as men.
There’s some pushback from young women still, that they don’t think they have the right skills. Or that their strengths are very social, that they have more people skills. That they’re more creative. But they can use all of that in technology fields.
This new generation is so proficient at using mobile technology and at games. They use technology in everything. I’ve appealed to young women especially who like the idea of building stuff on the Web — games, websites — that this is truly creating something. For me, I loved languages and history, and it’s true what my father pointed out to me. It is a language.
Also, because I’m bossy, I like giving instructions, even if it’s to a machine.
The machine has to do exactly what you tell it, whether you meant it or not. You find that out the hard way!
SmartAsset, a New York financial technology firm, ranked Kansas City ranked second in the nation among the best cities for women in technology. smartasset.com/career/best-cities-women-tech
Kansas City Women in Technology is a nonprofit organization focused on increasing the number of women in technology careers in Kansas City. kcwomenintech.org
About this series: In “Under Our Skin,” The Star’s features staff is talking to Kansas Citians about race, prejudice and bigotry. The series aims to foster a conversation that will help us learn from one another’s experiences. If you have ideas, please send them to David Frese at firstname.lastname@example.org or Kathy Lu at email@example.com.