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Tips for career success from our Women’s Leadership Council chairperson
by Laura Harshberger, Senior Information Technologies Manager
I actually fell into information technology after graduating from Carnegie Mellon, which provides a very technical education for all majors (every major is required to take a computer science programming class, even artists!). I realized that I have a technical mind, in terms of understanding how databases work and how to work with the business to solve problems with IT solutions. I started working for Alcoa after graduation in an IT systems analyst role and have continued in IT since then. I believe that IT is a critical business partner and enjoy working with the Aerospace business in my current role to figure out how IT can enable the business strategy.
What challenges have you personally faced in the course of your career, particularly within in male-dominated spaces?
I think the biggest challenge that I have overcome is making my voice heard and advocating for myself – most who know me know that I am not shy! But as females, we need to feel confident in speaking up and offering our opinions and solutions when working in teams or meetings. Diversity of thought is critical to increasing business growth.
What do you see as the current opportunities and challenges for women in technology?
This goes hand in hand with part of my comment above, we need to ensure we have a culture and environment where everyone feels comfortable to speak up and offer their thoughts and opinions. I think there are a lot of opportunities for women in technology, especially in the computer science and programming field. When I was at Carnegie Mellon, the student population was 70% male and 30% female. In recent years, it has shifted and the class of 2021 is 51% females and 49% males (similar percentage exists in the computer science school). These are really encouraging numbers and it shows that high school based STEM programs for girls are working well to educate them on career opportunities in IT, engineering, and science. The challenge, in my opinion, is unconscious bias – it is often assumed that women “belong” in particular roles based on history or how we were raised, so we need to keep empowering young girls to do whatever they want and break the traditional bias.
What do you think are the major barriers to the retention and advancement of women in STEM fields?
A lot of people might say that a barrier for women in terms of retention and advancement is family. I read a recent article that debunked this myth and talked about an underlying issue with overwork, especially with employees being expected to be available 24x7. This will be an issue for both males and females as technology enables us to be connected all of the time on any device. Another barrier ties back to feeling confident that you can continue to advance within STEM fields. I have mentored several females within PPG and outside of PPG and we talk a lot about self-advocacy and seeking out informal mentors and sponsors to help with career growth. Many think that their manager might “know” what they want, but without having a conversation, the manager might make assumptions that are incorrect.
What advice do you have for women interested in pursuing STEM careers?
When I am at recruiting events, I encourage women all the time to consider the IT field. I made a shift and took a risk by going into IT without a technical major and it has been great for my career. Businesses run on IT systems and we will continue to get more dependent on IT, which will increase the need for IT professionals and provide a path for females to grow into leadership positions.
How important is it for women to left each other up?
SO incredibly important!! We talk about this within PPG’s Women’s Leadership Council also – at times, we tend to be our own worst enemy…I have seen women be more judgmental and competitive towards other women. This behavior definitely needs to stop, we need to encourage each other and help each other, knowing that every person goes through different journeys. This is what brings diversity of experiences to our teams.
How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance?
This is a constant battle, I have had times in my career where there was an unhealthy balance! I create my balance by leaving work at work (as much as possible, knowing we are all connected via mobile phone!) and being fully present when at home in the evenings, on weekends, or on vacation. For vacation, I turn off the email on my phone, so that I can enjoy experiences with my family and friends (my team knows how to reach me on my cell for urgent issues) – I encourage my team to do this as well, since we all need a mental health break. And finally, my husband and I go to a personal trainer three times a week, which is a great stress relief and keeps us connected and healthy.