When Kimberly Zahler, a user experience designer in Bethel Park, was in graduate school studying digital design, she remembers feeling empowered by her professors and fellow students.
But once she was out of school, something shifted — in the working world, Zahler ran headlong into the sexism that has long been a component of the technology industry and other STEM-related fields in particular.
“I found myself in a position where people looked at me, heard what I had to say and then looked at the man next to me and said, ‘is she right?’ I sat in meetings where that was done to my face,” she said.
Now a contractor working for Highmark Health, Zahler said she wants to work to better develop the leadership skills necessary to further her career and mentor other women in the tech sector. That drive led her to apply for, and secure, one of several new awards for women in tech from RedChairPGH, a regional network of men and women geared toward achieving gender parity in the technical professions.
Zahler will receive the DDI Development Pack, provided by global leadership company DDI, along with fellow winners Hyunju Li of Samsung, Kristin Boehne of Five Star Development, and Amy Deponte of GNC. The DDI Development Pack includes a suite of development tools, including a 1-hour web-based training, “Interaction Essentials for Leaders,” an online learning library, and the book “Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others,” by Tacy Byham and Richard Wellins.
“Culturally, it’s easy for us to be conditioned to not speak up in certain situations where we might have a very valid or powerful point of view, and I’m mid-career and looking to develop more of that attitude of ‘speak up, you have something to contribute,'” Zahler said.
Other awards established this year include the Executive Coaching award, which was given to Rachael Hayden of PPG and Shireen Thomas of UPMC. The women will receive two one-hour executive coaching sessions from certified executive coach Laura Freedman. The group has also created the “EDGE Award,” which includes a two-day retreat at Nemacolin Woodlands Resortfocused on best practices for peer mentoring.
“Our hope with this is that we take women who are already motivated and strong and take them to the next level of development to continue to develop not only as leaders, but to aspire to be role models for other women in tech,” said Julia Poepping, board chair for RedChairPGH and principal consultant at Copasec, an IT and cyber security consultancy firm in Sewickley.
The statistics reflect the divide for men and women in the tech sector — women working in STEM fields are 45 percent more likely than men to leave the industry within one year, according to a 2014 report from the Center for Talent Innovation. This figure was despite the fact that roughly 80 percent of the women surveyed reported that they enjoyed their work, and Poepping said many women point to other factors, including discrimination in the workplace, as reason for leaving their fields.
“Turnover is very expensive, so hiring and training someone and bringing them up to speed is a very expensive proposition,” she said. “You want to be able to reach the other 50 percent of the population, too, in order to have a valuable resource for your workforce. If you have women who are capable, you should have them working in tech — otherwise it’s like you’re wasting resources.”
Poepping said RedChairPGH plans to continue to offer the awards annually to encourage women to seek more professional development.
Lydia Nuzum covers health care, technology and education for the Pittsburgh Business Times.