After 30 Years in IT, One Woman Sees More to Do

Sandra Ashworth, Unisys’s global director of channel relations and warranty, is an evangelist for women in IT. A member of CompTIA for more than 20 years, she’s currently the chair of the organization’s Advancing Women in IT Community.

Sandra AshfordAshworth’s been in the IT services industry for more than 30 years in capacities including field management, operations, vendor relations, customer service design/implementations and supply chain marketing. “I started out on an ad punch machine while I was in high school,” she says, laughing. Indeed, she’s been in the industry for so long that at one point she operated a Digital PDP 11/35.

Evolving Path for Women

Along the way she’s seen significant changes in the role of women in the IT workplace. Some of it’s been good but some of it hasn’t been. When facing discrimination because of her gender, Ashworth’s no-nonsense approach to other people’s stupidity has stood her well. While working as a district operations manager, she was regularly confused with the administrative assistant. Once, she was passed over for a senior level position, despite being told she was the most qualified applicant. “It was for a job in Saudi Arabia, so it’s not like I was surprised,” she says. “But at least I knew I was the best candidate for the job.”

Bright spots she’s seen are a significant change in sexual harassment policies, as well as the generational shift that’s resulting in women achieving gender parity. While there are still stumbling blocks, it’s not like it used to be. “Not too long ago, women would be pressured to succumb and a lot of men would prey on women who had been raised to be subservient,” she says. Ashworth, who grew up in a house full of men – all of whom worked in construction – wasn’t a pushover. “I had a more blunt way of dealing with it. Let’s just say, ‘You get up off that floor and I will knock you back down.’ I wouldn’t put up with it, I wouldn’t tolerate it and I wouldn’t take it.”

As for the concept of “leaning in,” she believes there’s value in doing so. Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller resonated with her, though she believes part of a larger mark was missed. “I think that in her (Sandberg’s) career path, she made a lot of concessions that I still don’t think are acceptable today.”

The Need at Mid-Level

While she’s somewhat cheered by the rise of women at the executive level in tech, Ashworth notes the dearth of women in the middle and lower levels. “There are women who are creeping up into those high levels but there’s a whole strata below them who are missing,” she says. “The trouble spots are services, technical operations and business. More women entering the field are going into sales, marketing and strategic development. The service end is lacking.”

The talk about the lack of women in tech positions brings us back to CompTIA’s Advancing Women in IT Community, which is dedicated to encouraging women to enter the field, then empowering them with the knowledge and skills necessary to pursue successful careers. The group doesn’t focus on only young women, but works with veterans seeking employment post-military, people looking to re-enter after raising families and those who want to make a significant career change from another industry. If someone has the desire and ability to commit, Ashworth knows they can use their existing skills, build with additional training and find a good fit.

Educating for Reality

When speaking to groups of women, Ashworth often meets resistance about technology jobs and has to educate her audience. “I think that people still view IT as the guy with the screwdriver or something more mechanical than what’s it evolved into,” she says. “When I go out, I hear a lot of ‘I don’t want to go out and fix a computer.’ It’s now about software application and integrations. There are so many facets and verticals in IT.”

The IT evangelist illustrated a successful approach during a recent gathering at a Chicago-area high school, where she met with girls in grades 9-12. One student was adamantly opposed to even taking a class in computing. She kept telling Ashworth that she wanted to go into fashion and had no need for tech. When asked if she’d ever been to a runway show, the young woman said she hadn’t and Ashworth pitched hard.

“I let her know that everything at that show is dictated by electronics. When people design clothes they sit down at a CAD/CAM system and they sketch on a computer. They have software that brings in colors and textures of fabrics. The next day the director called me and said, ‘I’ve been after that girl for two years and she’s refused to take a computer class. You come in and in half an hour, her mind is changed and she’s signed up for classes.’ That’s an example of someone not understanding that computing can get you to your ultimate goal.”

5 Responses to “After 30 Years in IT, One Woman Sees More to Do”

  1. So very true. I haven’t been in tech quite as long as she has, but it’s close (I used a PDP-11 in college). I, too, was often thought to be an admin or secretary in my first few roles. I’ve worked jobs where I was the only female in a group of 50. Things have improved a lot and I really haven’t seen a whole lot of discrimination from the technical side, but I’m concerned by the numbers I’ve been seeing about women entering engineering and technical career paths. The numbers of people taking that path in general aren’t looking good.

    Like her anecdote of the girl wanting to get into fashion and eschewing technology, there seems to be a whole new culture where tackling a “hard” career in the sciences or engineering is not considered “cool.” Stereotypes in the media and in popular culture don’t help, either. No one wants to be a nerd when the alternative is glamorous fashion people or lawyers, which tend to be viewed more positively.

    There’s a definite shortage of talent and new innovations are occurring so rapidly that we’re in danger of falling behind. That would be a shame. It’s good there are people like Ms. Ashworth who are willing to promote this sort of career.

  2. I have the privilege of knowing Sandy Ashworth in the professional community for more than 20 years. Sandy is not only a role model for women in IT. She is a role model for leadership and ethical values in an ever evolving marketplace. Sandy has been a mentor to men and women through her job responsibility, contributions to trade associations, and among the professional community at large. Sandy is direct, to the point, and tells it like it is in a no-nonsense manner. For men and women aspiring to develop trustworthy professional reputations and long lasting careers, Sandy Ashworth provides an exceptional example of character, dedication and integrity.

  3. I’m in the computer support field and before that I worked in semiconductor equipment support for close to 20 years now. As a woman in a male-dominated profession I can relate to a lot of what Ashworth and other women have gone through. I’ve encountered some real hostility from male co-workers in my career. Ironically it’s usually my co-workers and supervisors I have the most trouble with, whereas my customers, or end-users, I often get along with so well that I win customer service awards. The end-users are what keep me going, along with the knowledge that I can often troubleshoot circles around my male counterparts. But admittedly after 20 years, it wears on me and I often think about an alternative career choice at this point in my life.

    I want to add that my male co-workers are not the only ones that have made this career difficult. Often women are our own worst enemy. When I go to lunch with someone from work, women often seem to be more suspicious of it and at times it feels like I am being suspected of sleeping with them. Also women can be as hard to convince that I know what I’m doing as the men often are. Yet I keep thinking they’ll be more willing to accept me.

    In the long run we still have a long way to go.

  4. I am a black woman who was in the technical field as a Programmer Analyst and Software Engineer way back when I punched cards to enter programs. I left for 25 years to be a full time homemaker and raise a truckload of kids. I really really want to get back in the field because I miss it. Last year I took a technical course that I thought would help but can’t seem to buy a job if I could afford to do that. I am in great transition through no fault of mine. Would you please give me advice as to how I might be able to do this or is it possible. Give it to me straight PLEASE.

    • It’s very difficult nowadays. Companies and recruiters won’t even talk to you if you’ve been out of the field for more than a few months. Age is also a factor. I never used to see this, but in the last couple of years, my offer ratio has plummeted. Appearance also matter. I put on some weight due to some medication a couple of years ago and, combined with my age (48), I’m just not getting the positive responses I used to see. Sure, discrimination is illegal, but there are subconscious things that affect the impression you give people and you can’t do a lot about that. My solution right now is to try to find some remote contracting work where my age and appearance won’t matter. There are more of those sorts of jobs coming out all the time, but it’s still slow going. Kind of sad for someone who has skill sets that are actually in high demand.