Mothers In Tech

By Michelle Quinn
East Bay Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Mothers in tech are natural role models. They offer their daughters exposure to some of the best aspects of the industry and a front seat to some of its challenges. But what do you do when your daughter has NO visions for a career in tech? The author of this piece talks to several women in business who are dealing with just that…the struggle of encouraging their daughters to explore STEM without pushing them.

East Bay Times

Mia Leondakis, a vice president at VMware, wonders what she might have done differently. One daughter designs restaurants. The other is studying psychology.

Why haven’t they followed in their mother’s footsteps and pursued careers in tech? Didn’t they have a good role model who embraced math and science?

By this point in her career, Leondakis expected there would be more women like her in tech, including perhaps her own daughters.

Instead, she and other women in tech hear their daughters say things like, “I’ll put needles in my eyes before I work in an office like you do, Mom.”

Most children don’t want to follow in the exact footsteps of their parents. But in the Bay Area, where there is heightened awareness about the need for more women in tech, the pressure on both mothers and daughters to be part of the solution is hard to escape.

There are a steady drumbeat of initiatives, programs and messaging all designed to encourage girls’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math. Robotics are for girls. Girls can code. And let girls play video games, as Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, has said.

But what any one young woman ultimately decides to do is a deeply individual choice.

“As all mothers know, urging your child to follow in your footsteps may send them running in the opposite direction,” said Arianna Huffington, the co-founder of the Huffington Post and an author. “But what we can all do — and what so many women are already doing — is open up the conversation about all the pioneering women in STEM, the incredible impact they’re having around the world, and the many opportunities that do exist.”

We know the stats: Despite earning the majority of bachelor’s degrees, women earn less than one in five computer science degrees. They make up just one quarter of the tech workforce.

Mothers in tech are natural role models. They offer their daughters exposure to some of the best aspects of the industry and a front seat to some of its challenges.

“These mothers love tech and they love the potential for their daughters,” said Lori Mackenzie, executive director of The Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, which is studying women leaders in tech and other fields and the way bias can limit women’s advancement.

But women in tech often have to work to overcome the perception that they are less committed because of having a family, and that stress may deter young people — men and women — from wanting to enter the industry, said Mackenzie.

For Audrey Van Belleghem, who has worked at Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and NetApp, a career in tech helped her talk with her daughters about the possibilities ahead for them. She told them to think beyond the stereotype of engineers as the anti-social man who sat in front of a computer all day.

“Think of tech as a way to use your creative genius to solve some of the world’s problems,'” she told them.

Today, one daughter is pursuing a Ph.D in bioengineering. The other is majoring in electrical engineering and computer science degree at MIT. Her son, still in high school, is just as interested in technology, says Van Belleghem, now vice president of operations at the Anita Borg Institute of Women in Technology.

Heidi Roizen, an operating partner at DFJ Ventures and a successful tech entrepreneur, wasn’t surprised when her daughter, Marleyna, didn’t want to study computer science. Marleyna, a sophomore at Stanford, is interested in animals and humans.

“I was never thinking of going into tech,” she said.

For Marleyna, tech was not as cutting edge even though she did admire how her mother built teams and related to people in a human way.

“Tech was about pushing boundaries for her. It came out of her interest in the forefront of human capability,” Marleyna said. “For my generation, it’s not as much of a frontier.”

In Leondakis’s case, she came up through the tech industry in the 1990s and early 2000s, at a time when she felt she had to be the best worker and best parent — and keep the two worlds apart.

When her girls came into the room during business calls, she remembers “freaking out.” Did her girls see a profession that looked too stressful and inflexible when it came to a work life balance? She wonders.

“My kids could see it — as much as I portrayed it as a piece of cake,” she says.

Leondakis says she now has more confidence in her career and in her ability to focus on both her work and parenting.

Her daughter, Elaina, who is studying psychology, understands how her mother feels about the past. “When I was younger, she was working very hard to keep work and her home life separate. I can see how she would feel that she was living a double life.”

But Elaina remembers other things. Going on business trips with her mom sparked her own desire to travel. And something else.
“My mom has so much passion in what she does now,” Elaina said. “She supports whatever we do so long as we have the passion for it.”

It’s passion that’s going to propel Elaina, Marleyna and other daughters to do great things. They should follow their own paths, not ours.

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