International Women’s Day: Be empowered one step at a time

On March 8th, women around the globe rally together for International Women’s Day under the theme #BalanceforBetter with the goal of creating a more gender-balanced world. For me and many of the women I work with in the tech industry, achieving balance and empowerment has come one step at a time. It’s the small daily actions we take that create change. International Women’s Day is always an important time to re-energize our efforts for gender balance and remind us that we need to continue to take small steps every day to make a big impact.

2019 has been called, “The Year of the Woman,” and it’s exciting to see the strides we’re making in terms of awareness and engagement on the gender gap issue. Despite the energy and momentum, the number of women pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education careers remains frighteningly low. 57% of all undergrad degrees are held by women yet only 18% of those are in computer science.

We need to stop the leaky pipe: This gender disparity has led to important studies about “why” this gap exists. Some attribute it to cultural stereotypes and long-standing views that STEM careers are not for women. Others point to a lack of mentors and role models, or a lack of awareness around educational and career opportunities for girls and women. When you look at these studies in aggregate it’s clear that, in STEM, there’s a leaky pipe where girls and women drop out all along the way. In one recent study, 30% of elementary school girls said they only envision men in STEM careers. In another study, 21% of high school girls said they were too embarrassed to ask questions in STEM classes. And in yet another, 66% of college aged women in STEM said they felt more pressure to prove themselves over their male counterparts, discouraging women to pursue careers in STEM.

Whatever the reason why we are seeing the dropout rates, the more pressing question, is what…..as in, what are we doing to inspire more girls and women to pursue and stick with an education and career in STEM?

It all starts in the classroom: We need to empower and equip our girls with skills for the next generation of work. Gone are the days when we have to push ourselves to be “risk takers.” Today, we need to encourage girls to be passionate about STEM, to be fearless in their pursuit of a career in this field and to have the grit they will need to carry on in the face of adversity. Microsoft, along with partners from both public and private sectors, have created programs to inspire girls to do just that, which is what extends the great momentum of International Women’s Day to 365 days a year! Some of the programs that Microsoft is proud to support include YouthSpark Camps, DigiGirlz Days, and Girls Who Code. If you have a daughter interested in the STEM field, I encourage you to check these out!

It continues to the boardroom: We need to start early encouraging our girls, but we also need to encourage women already in the workforce. 54% of women drop out early in their STEM careers, between their mid to late 30s and only 5% of tech startups are women owned. One organization at the forefront of inspiring women STEM entrepreneurs that I’m particularly passionate about and helped found is Women-in-Cloud. The objective of Women-in-Cloud is to provide access, acceleration, and action to help women STEM entrepreneurs pursue innovative opportunities in the cloud. Women-in-Cloud began as a partnership between Microsoft and HPE to promote female entrepreneurship, but with support of international organizations, like Ideagen, it’s growing to become a truly global movement that transcends organizational, cultural, and physical boundaries.

We need everyone to advocate: This is not just a women’s issue. Creating a more gender-balanced world is everyone’s responsibility. Why? Because diversity drives disruption and innovation. Men can be some of our best advocates when they take an active role in ensuring women are heard, valued and given opportunities to succeed in the tech industry. As I said, closing the gap and empowering women starts with just one small step and it grows from there. I encourage both women and men to take action. Create access or mentorship for girls in STEM. Help women entrepreneurs grow their businesses. Personally commit to creating more gender equality in your corner of the world!

My hope is that International Women’s Day is both a celebration of how far we’ve come and a catalyst for further action to support and encourage women to lead in areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

Gretchen O’Hara is a 20+ year tech industry veteran with vast experience in commercial, public sector, and partner sales and marketing across small, medium, and large businesses—including technical evangelism with students, startups, and developers across the world. Currently, Gretchen serves as Vice President of Go-to-Market for the One Commercial Partner Organization at Microsoft, where she is responsible for leading the market strategy and execution with partners, responsible for $20 billion in revenue and 23K partners across the US.
Prior to this role, Gretchen led business and market strategy for the US Developer Experience & Evangelism organization, where she oversaw efforts to build connections with ISVs, startups, developers, students, and IT pros; accelerated third-party application development on Microsoft devices and cloud platforms; led commercial marketing for the US; and built the WW Partner Cloud Strategy for the partner ecosystem—building new channel transformation to support cloud and digital transformation within companies and the industry.

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