Cracking the Silicon Ceiling

woman punching through glass window
Contributing Writer

12 minutes

Narrowing the gender gap benefits both talented female IT professionals and credit unions.

Representation matters, we’re told. The more female senators are elected, the more young women can imagine themselves as a member of Congress. Wonder Woman matters because little girls can picture themselves as the hero instead of the person being rescued.

And so it is in IT. For young women trying to climb the career ladder in the notoriously male-centric tech industry, a role model or mentor is invaluable. Just ask Stephanie Hyles, SVP/chief strategy officer at $661 million Leominster Credit Union, Leominster, Mass.

“My mom is the person who got me started in computers,” she recalls. “She worked in Albany for the state of New York, and she used to program stuff on punch cards. Back when I was a kid in the late '60s, early '70s, I’d go to work with her once in a while and think, ‘That’s really cool.’ So, I’ve always wanted to do it.”

Hyles’s experience was an unusual one. Then, as now, female IT professionals were rare. But leaders recognized her talent and gave her a leg up, even while she was still completing her two-year degree in computer science.

“I was working in a computer lab at the college,” she says. “There’s a company called Freihofer Baking Company in upstate New York. I tutored one of their sons in computers in 1984. We couldn’t finish his project, and if he didn’t finish it he was going to get in trouble. So he said, ‘Let’s go to my uncle’s house and we can use his computer.’ His uncle was Ed Freihofer, and he ran the technology for the multimillion-dollar bakery. He met me and watched me helping his nephew, and he offered me a job before I even graduated. He changed my life. I’ll never forget him.”

That pattern has repeated itself throughout Hyles’s career: She impressed the people she worked for, and in return they made sure she got the training, connections and opportunities she needed. She went to Unisys school, learned data centers and banking platforms inside and out, innovated and streamlined every system she touched, and eventually landed in the credit union movement. In late 2016, after a stint as VP/IT at $578 million Direct Federal Credit Union in Needham, Mass., she was lured away to her first C-level position as chief strategy officer at Leominster CU.

Relative Rarities

Why should Hyles’s mentors have helped advance her career? Why should the financial services industry, and the credit union movement in particular, try to change the gender balance in information technology? Why give women a leg up in a field of expertise they’ve traditionally been discouraged from pursuing?

Consultant Katica Roy is CEO and founder of Pipeline Equity, a Denver startup that uses a proprietary software platform to assess, address and take action against unconscious gender biases at the individual and corporate level. She started her career in IT and eventually found a way to use her tech skills in the field of human capital.

“Something we talk about a lot, and the reason we focus on the economics of gender equity, is to really look at it from a labor economics perspective rather than as a human rights issue,” she says. “Women’s enrollment in United States business schools is actually going down, and they’re opting out of financial services. … This is about the labor economics—your future talent pool. Fixing gender equity within your organization now ultimately leads you to greater access to a larger labor pool down the road.”

If they do so, credit unions will not only benefit from greater numbers of able techies to fill their IT departments, they’ll also gain the advantages of seeing operational challenges from multiple angles.



"This is about the labor economics—your future talent pool. Fixing gender equity within your organization now ultimately leads you to greater access to a larger labor pool down the road."

Katica Roy, CEO and founder of Pipeline Equity

“I think women look at things differently than men, and I think when men begin to overrun a [particular field], things go in a different direction,” Hyles says. “You only get half of the point of view. I think women have different perspective on process, and they have a different perspective on priority. Women have such a knack for efficiency, and we multitask so well. I think women look at things differently, and we’re probably missing a lot of opportunity.”

Jump, and the Ledge Will Appear

Adele Glenn, emerging channels innovation architect at $2.9 billion Credit Human, a 253,000-member federal credit union based in San Antonio, didn’t start out in IT. She graduated high school at 16 and skipped college so she could start her own catering and wedding planning business. But at age 19, having sold the business, she walked into $1.1 billion CoastHills CU, Lompoc, Calif.,  to deposit a check and ended up helping fix a problem in the computer room. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I took a job in the operations center, and they had just converted to the Symitar core platform, and all Symitar is open source, so it was kind of like, ‘Do you want to play with it and see what you can come up with?’ And that’s how I became a software developer,” she says.

It wasn’t always easy along the way. As a software developer and IT manager, she’d go to industry conferences where she was regarded as the token woman. Once, at a software user group conference, she walked into an all-male room where a roundtable discussion was being held. Someone assumed she was an administrative assistant and asked her to fetch some coffee. “I thought, 'Is this a joke?' But they were serious.”

CUES member Pamela Mulka, VP/IT and operations at $316 million Advantage Federal Credit Union, Rochester, N.Y., faced similar obstacles. Despite a computer science degree and an MBA, she was still objectified and mommy-tracked in her early career.

“Women weren’t expected to work with or fix computers or networks. It was thought to be a man’s job,” she says. “I grew confidence and thick skin. I was told ‘I’d much rather have you crawling under my desk than Matt or Chuck.’ I was made fun of [by my co-workers] when I asked a question about something that I didn’t know ...”.

Mulka was also told that a company she had worked for was pulling out of its Fairbanks, Alaska, location and transferring all the male employees. The women were denied transfers because the men "had families to support," she recalls.

"We often focus on what women need to do, but fundamentally, women are not broken. The system is broken, and we need to fix the system."

Katica Roy, CEO and founder of Pipeline Equity

As much as we’d like to think things have changed, computer rooms today often still have the same boys-club atmosphere. Women who succeed despite this challenging climate tend to have certain personality traits. They’re curious self-starters who glean all they can from knowledgeable supervisors and bosses—both in computer science and in business and finance—but are also able to teach themselves when no one else can or will.

“Always be willing to learn,” says Mulka. “As soon as you stop in this field, your career will not go any further. There’s information for whatever you need on the internet; you just have to keep looking. If you don’t understand something, ask. If you still don’t, ask again.”

Roy says the women who succeed in the male-centric IT world are also the ones who aren’t afraid to take thoughtful, calculated risks.  

“… I very much had confidence in my ability to figure things out,” she says. “I had a willingness to move forward with incomplete information, the idea being that you jump and the ledge appears. I made my brand as somebody … who was willing to take on either an average project and get it back on track, or someone who was willing to charge into a new frontier and create something that was new. I got to do a lot of interesting things, which gave me the opportunity to move my career forward quickly.”

Glenn concurs. “You definitely have to be a self-starter, not afraid to take calculated risks,” she says. “You also have to have the ability to communicate. I think that’s a challenge for any IT professional. Sometimes we speak a different language, but our business partners or members may not speak the same language we do. We’re serving a business need, serving a member need.”

Nevertheless, often talented women with all the right traits end up leaving IT for greener pastures. What can credit unions do to make their computer rooms friendlier places for women? And in particular, what can top female tech professionals do to cultivate the next generation of women in information technology? It’s not rocket science—as is true in many fields, mentorship and professional development support make the crucial difference.

Paying It Forward

Michigan native and CUES member Samantha Amburgey, CIO at $3.76 billion MSU Federal Credit Union, East Lansing, Mich., initially earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. After working in the hospitality and service industries in Las Vegas for several years, she moved back to the Lansing area to study radiology. While she was in school, she started working full-time as a call center specialist at MSU FCU. Radiology turned out not to be a good fit, so she switched to programming courses and started a technical support internship at the American Red Cross. At the same time, she embarked on a management development program at the CU.

“MSUFCU has a very amazing, supportive culture and I have been lucky to have a number of mentors to learn from over the 13 years I’ve worked here,” she enthuses. “I have worked alongside and for individuals with a lot of experience who were interested in sharing their knowledge and helping to develop me as a leader. They taught me to think more critically, emulate our core values, and helped me have confidence in my abilities. I pay this forward by mentoring and guiding others in the organization, providing honest feedback to help them grow, and sharing the lessons I’ve learned over the years.”

Female IT employees need guidance, role models and support from supervisors and peers, she says. Supervisors should ask about their employees’ goals and determine the areas they’d like to develop further, then plan milestones, tasks and projects to make those goals a reality.

“Having strong role models may be a challenge if there are not many other women in your credit union’s technology areas,” she admits. If that’s the case, she says, there are local and virtual user groups and community organizations, many focusing on women in technology, that can help fill the gap. The National Center for Women & Information Technology is a good starting point, and there are plenty of specific application groups that can be found through a Google search.

Glenn says identifying leadership potential and supporting it is critical. She suggests that attitude is more important than educational background. In many cases; you can teach coding, but you can’t teach personality. She is living proof: Credit Human has constantly supported her position with continuing education.

“I wasn’t formally trained, didn’t have degrees when I started,” she says. “Now I have two undergraduate degrees, I just finished my MBA last year, and they have supported me with tuition assistance. I was able to finish three degrees with zero student loan debt, which is a miracle. That education has really led to my career progression, being able to reach the executive level. We have several employees who spend a couple of hours of their workday completing homework and assignments. Just being very pro-education is a huge thing credit unions can do.”

Colorado, where Roy lives, has a greater-than-average number of female tech CEOs, so she often gets the chance to talk with other women in IT leadership roles about ways to increase opportunities for up-and-comers.

“If I was going to give advice to my peers, it would be this,” she says. “We are here, and we know what we endured to get here. How can we then use that experience to create more opportunity for the women coming up behind us? Our obligation, or our duty, [is to use our experience] to make it better for other women.”

There’s no prize, after all, for traipsing through the most manure on the way to success.

“Right, so let’s just stop it,” she says. “Let’s make it so that that’s not the way it is.”

Fixing the System

Beyond that, Roy is somewhat loath to offer advice to up-and-coming women in IT, or to the top female IT professionals who can help smooth their path.

“I almost hesitate a little … and I’ll tell you why,” she says. “We often focus on what women need to do, but fundamentally, women are not broken. The system is broken, and we need to fix the system. There is value in all of us working together, but I also think that the larger burden of this responsibility does not sit with women; it sits with organizations, because they’re the creators of the system that’s holding women back.”

Mentorship is crucial, but it shouldn’t be the only way CUs help women to get to the top, she stresses. Instead, she endorses the idea of sponsorship.

“It’s this idea that women are whole and complete as they are, and we’re going to put them forward and give them visibility,” she explains. “We know from research that sponsorship and visibility make a big difference, that meritocracies actually fail women. When we judge men and women the same, it actually judges women against a male standard. What we should do instead is value differences, and that’s really the power of gender equity.”

Her strategy for organizational change has many facets: Create safe spaces to move the gender equity conversation forward, and understand that men are an important part of the conversation. Focus on the front line, which is where most of the leadership pipeline comes from. Understand who gets promoted and into which roles.

“And then address bias head on,” she says. “Unfortunately, a lot of times addressing bias is either left to the person who is experiencing it, or it’s left with [someone] like a chief diversity officer. … If we really want to change the culture, we need to make sure that we’re not singling people out, because we know there’s a heavy downside for people who stick up for themselves. Really, what we should be doing is creating a culture that expects for those things to be talked about, and talked about in a way that everyone’s learning.”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer based in Georgia.

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