She’s gotta have IT: Closing the gender gap in Michigan’s booming tech industry


She’s gotta have IT: Closing the gender gap in Michigan’s booming tech industry

An Amazon Future Engineer student.

Its vision is clear: make Michigan the No. 1 state for women in technology.

The Michigan Council of Women in Technology (MCWT) Foundation, founded in 2002 as a networking group for female IT professionals, is now a 750-member statewide organization focused on supporting and growing women – and girls – in the field of information technology.

“Our mission is to help women consider, advance and stay in IT,” said Chris Rydzewski, executive director of Southfield-based MCWT. “We do this by making an impact early in girls’ lives to get them to consider technology and then by deeply connecting with women who choose an IT path.”

MCWT volunteers come from all walks of life: Fortune 500 companies like General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Dow and Lear Corp. to startups with a passion for helping women succeed in what is still a male-dominated IT field. Only 26% of professional computing occupations nationwide are held by women, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

At the same time, many of Michigan’s hottest jobs are in IT thanks to an insatiable demand for faster and better technology. While some of these high-demand, high-wage careers require advanced degrees, the Talent and Economic Development (Ted) Department of Michigan says others like computer network support specialists are often attainable with an associate degree or certification.

“Skill-specific certifications are becoming more important in the rapidly evolving tech industry. And many times, companies offer tuition reimbursement so employees can grow into more advanced careers that require a bachelor’s degree,” said Stephanie Beckhorn, Ted acting director.

There is an incredible demand for workers throughout Michigan: Employers say they’ll need to fill an estimated 545,000 skilled-labor jobs coming open through 2026, mostly in the fields of IT, healthcare, construction, advanced manufacturing and automotive.

Web developer employment, for example, is projected to grow 12.6% annually, and its average salary of $61,000 a year is expected to keep increasing because of the rising need for people with IT skills.

To help employers fill that skills gap, Ted’s Going PRO in Michigan education campaign is showcasing numerous careers Ted collectively refers to as Professional Trades.

MCWT is doing its part by helping to grow a steady stream of women ready to enter the technology workforce and support them throughout their careers.

MCWT volunteers work to spark girls’ interest in IT through summer tech camps and robotics and website design competitions in grades K-12; providing scholarships and internship opportunities for women considering the IT field; and mentoring women pursuing careers in technology.

Here’s what three of MCWT’s leaders have to say about their ongoing efforts to make Michigan tops in technology:

Chris Rydzewski, Michigan Council of Women in Technology Foundation (MCWT), executive director

What are the biggest obstacles to girls/women entering, advancing and staying in IT?

Young girls face many unique challenges: pressure to fit a certain persona, obstacles, subliminal bias around learning math, etc. Lack of exposure to technology is a significant barrier for girls. That’s why MCWT engages with girls as early as elementary school and provides positive technology-related experiences, while encouraging them to consider IT as a learning path and ultimately as their career. 

As women enter a career in IT, studies have found that the lack of female role models and representation is a main component of women leaving the industry. MCWT has taken on the challenge of being the “one in the room” and aims to provide women with opportunities to lead and to find strength, support and mentorship within its dynamic programs and events.

What are MCWT’s goals?

MCWT has identified four key initiatives to engage, empower and educate: executing on financially balanced programs; connecting the dots between girls and women to leverage relationships and maximize results; innovating new technologies and relevant programs; and measuring our impact across the state.  

We are excited to make Michigan the No. 1 state for women in technology!

May Russell,
Ford Motor Co., global leader of consumer and mobility emerging technologies and chief officer for MCWT’s Mission Task Force: K-8

Tell me about a time when you saw the STEM “lightbulb” go off for a girl/young woman and how it felt for you.

A few years ago, I took my daughter to The Mentors Robot Shop in Howell and there was an all-girls robotics team there called the Pink Eagles, whose members offered to tutor my daughter. When I asked what got them started with STEM, the girls answered that they’d attended a technology camp called Camp Infinity. I immediately lit up with excitement because that’s one of the programs we offer for girls ages K-8 through MCWT!

It was so rewarding to see how the girls’ experience in our tech camp not only continued to inspire them, but also that they were participating in tech competitions and tutoring other girls!

What would you say to a girl considering a tech career?

I’d say it was the best decision she will ever make! In my 20 years in technology, each year has been the ‘biggest’ year ever. Each year, I think there cannot possibly be more change and industry advancement – but there is! Technology has permeated every aspects of consumer life and behavior, as well as all facets of business.

An IT career will be intellectually stimulating and will provide flexibility and exposure to many other industries, such as manufacturing, finance, retail, healthcare and more.

How do you support other women in technology at Ford?

There is an amazing community of women in technology at Ford, as well as a broad leadership team and men who support and encourage all of us as one team.

There are also great organizations that offer mentorship, interview practice, career advice and more to women. I have mentors and mentees who are women; we provide a robust network for each other to bounce ideas off of and to discuss work-life matters.

Rajani Sinha, 
Business Relationship Manager, ICT Quality, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

Why did you choose a career in technology?

I grew up in a small town in India where there were not many working women, and women in technology-related fields were nonexistent. My mom was a college professor in zoology and my role model. From a young age, I had a passion for learning and was not afraid of breaking boundaries. I loved the analytical aspect of engineering and took that up as my undergraduate degree. I graduated top of the class and got the opportunity to work in information technology straight out of college at one of the largest iron and steel companies in India, where I got hooked on technology and the IT field.

The fast pace of change in this field provided me the perfect opportunity to combine my thirst for continuous learning with my natural desires to gravitate toward new challenges. Twenty-plus years later, there are new opportunities for growth due to rapid changes in this field: new challenges to be solved and always something new to learn, which really excites and motivates me.

What advice would you give a young woman struggling to find herself in a male-dominated IT field?

  • Focus on what you bring to the table. The diversity of opinion is invaluable and much needed in the workplace today. Instead of focusing on being the only woman at the table and feeling less capable, think of that as a major advantage.
  • Make your voice heard and your opinion understood – you will be amazed at the difference that makes to the end result due to the different way women approach a problem.
  • Raise your hand for tough assignments.
  • See men as your allies. Network and connect with them. Understand their viewpoint and try to make them understand yours for a win-win situation.
  • Accept obstacles in your path as learning opportunities. No journey is without bumps – you will face them. But you will emerge successful if you learn from them.
  • And in the end, be authentic and true to who you are as that is what will take you through.

Tell me about a time when you made a difference in the life of a woman you mentored.

One year, I had this amazing young talented engineer as a mentee who was a mother of two young children and was finding it hard to manage both her responsibilities as a mother and her new job in engineering. She was smart and intelligent and had a warm personality, but I could see that she was so swamped in the day-to-day issues that she was buckling under pressure and was contemplating leaving her job.

Having gone through those experiences myself with my two boys, I realize how tough it is and was able to share nuggets of information with her on how I approached work-life balance during that crucial part of my life.

Ultimately, my mentee and I talked through various scenarios to understand what options would best suit her and her family. In the end, she chose to job-share with another individual in a similar situation instead of quitting her job. Retaining talented women is as important as hiring them. Losing them is a big loss for any organization.