Herstory Matters: Break Down the Firewall for Women in IT

The first time history really made sense to me was in the seventh grade, when I first started learning about the struggle for women’s suffrage. I recognized that the story of the fight for the right to vote, and of the women who were leading it was inextricably linked to my life. We didn’t have a women’s history month then, and I didn’t realize how little of it would be part of my formal education. That’s why I still get excited when March rolls around and we get a whole month focused on women’s history- or as I prefer to call it, herstory.

I especially like International Women’s Day (IWD), because it links women across the world in recognition of the interconnectedness of our struggles across cultures, nations, races, and geography. I love knowing that IWD has its roots in the U.S. women’s trade union movement. March 8th was the date of two worker demonstrations, one of garment workers in 1857, and another fifty-one years later in 1908, of women in the needle trades. In each case women workers marched and picketed for better, safer working conditions and equal rights for women. This herstory is important to me because it serves as a reminder of the power of organizing to create social change. We still have a long way to go towards women’s full equality, especially in the workplace, but much of what these women fought for – an eight-hour day, women’s right to vote, and laws prohibiting child labor – are protections we now take for granted, at least in this country.

WOW’s history also is rooted in working women coming together and organizing for change. As we celebrate WOW’s 50th anniversary we have been digging up some of the stories of our founders that describe WOW’s evolution. It was in the seventies that WOW started to analyze the problems of occupational segregation by gender. This was a direct result of finding that traditional women’s jobs such as clerical and nurses’ aides did not offer wages that would lead women to economic security. It didn’t take long for it to be clear that it was in non-marginal jobs, jobs traditionally held by men, that women could find economic security. In addition to better wages, those jobs offered on the job training and future upward mobility. Not only did women embrace these new opportunities wholeheartedly, it signaled a profound shift for WOW, into the policy arena, where we began to fight to expand and enforce equal employment laws and to ensure that public employment and job training programs treated women equitably.

It wasn’t easy back then; there was resistance from employers, male workers, policymakers. WOW found that even the regulations requiring federal contractors to set goals and timetables for women’s inclusion in male-dominated jobs were often unenforced and public job training programs still segregated women into low-wage sectors. WOW crafted sex equity language for the Department of Labor that recognized that training funds could be used to address the needs of special populations, including women. It was known as the “WOW paragraph.”

Forty years later, WOW is still in the forefront of opening up nontraditional jobs to women and continuing to make herstory. While we can definitely point to progress, it is a bit alarming to look back at our history and realize we are still fighting some of the same battles WOW took on in the seventies and eighties. However, history reminds us of the example of our foremothers who fought for over sixty years for women’s suffrage. Although the change seems long in coming, the every little step and each one of our efforts brings us closer to equality. We are taking one of those steps this week as WOW tackles the low representation of women in IT.

Women were only 8.9 percent of hardware computer programmers and only 19 percent of software computer programmers in 2013. Nevertheless, with some reminders from our herstory we learn that these jobs haven’t always been difficult for women to enter. In fact, last year, WOW’s Matt Unrath posted a blog about the computer programmers history forgot – women. His blog, following an NPR report on the same topic, describes the roles of Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and Jean Jennings Bartik in the expansion of modern computing. We Facebooked, tweeted, and instagrammed the blog and our intern took a Vine of our CEO trying to send a Snap Chat thanking Matt for his post. And we can thank many of the women you can read about here for starting our culture down the path to that sentence even making sense to anyone!

As we enter the second full week of Women’s History Month, WOW is hosting the New Jersey Forum on Women in Information Technology at Essex County College. We’re bringing together experts in community college instruction, representatives from the workforce development system, members of local government, employers and students to address women’s underrepresentation in the IT sector. We won’t be marching and picketing in the streets like our foremothers, but we will be carrying on the struggle of women for good work and full equality in the workplace through education, coalition building and promoting effective strategies for equitable workforce training. Moreover, we will be encouraged by the knowledge of our herstory, that each of these steps matter!

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