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IBM's Lisa Seacat DeLuca on being a woman in the tech industry

IBM's master inventor Lisa Seacat DeLuca gives insight into promoting gender diversity. Learn why both official programs and informal outreach are so important.

"I'm naturally an optimist," said Lisa Seacat DeLuca, director and distinguished engineer at IBM who leads digital twins research and holds more than 500 patents. "It's never: 'Oh, it's too bad this is the way it works; move on.' It's: 'How do we change it?'"

DeLuca -- the most prolific female inventor in IBM history -- was talking about her work with digital twins, but she could just as easily have been discussing her support of women in tech. The topic of being a woman in the tech industry is an important component of the overall need for diversity and inclusion.

In this interview, DeLuca gave insight into why employer support for women in tech is so critical, how female allyship promotes gender diversity and why the pandemic is especially bad for working mothers.

Gender diversity program can serve key role

What can companies do to promote women in tech?

Lisa Seacat DeLuca: I've been really lucky because IBM has been so good about [promoting women in tech]. We have what we call the 'Technical Women's Pipeline program.' Basically, women are identified and get pulled into this program where they're offered a sponsor and a mentor, both on the technical and business side, to help grow them in their career. It's not just a mentoring session -- that is, one-on-one talking about what you need to do next. It also pulls in their management chain and makes it actionable on how to get them to the next level.

Lisa Seacat DeLucaLisa Seacat DeLuca

This morning, I happened to be on a call where there were 17 participants, but [that included only] me and one other girl. So, I reached out to her [afterward to say], 'Stay strong, women in tech!' It just started that allyship that more companies and more people can do. She said, 'How do I get more involved?' and 'We should have a local Girls Who Code.' … Just talking through some of the things that she could do to start getting more involved in promoting women in tech.

A lot of [what can help] is just broadening our networks and helping to pull up some of the women that are just getting started or that might be mid-career and they're thinking about getting out or feeling uncomfortable. [It's important to keep] sharing our stories on how they can proceed.

the need to promote gender diversity

Sparking tech interest in girls

According to some reports, the percentage of women in tech is still quite low and hasn't changed much in the last 10 years. What can women who are in tech do to change that for the next generation of girls?

DeLuca: That requires taking the stage and sharing our stories -- talking about what we're doing, going out and talking to local schools.

I recently went to my own kids' kindergarten class in Baltimore. I said, 'How many of you think that girls can have a career in technology?' The girls didn't raise their hand, and the boys didn't raise their hand. Then, I asked, 'How many think it's OK for boys?' Then, of course, all the boys are raising their hand.

I don't know when this [gender division] starts. I was part of a 'She Can STEM' campaign, which is all about helping middle school-aged girls to have that role model and someone to look up to right around that time when they start getting less interested in math and science. But, unless it's personal in some way, it just feels out of reach. So, it's really about getting our leaders to go back into their local communities and helping all the grades level up.

Some key components of women in tech programs

What are some of the nuts and bolts of IBM's program for women in tech that business leaders and HR teams might learn from?

DeLuca: All these women got to go in person to our Learning Center in New York for IBM. We spent three days together, and we did a lot of sessions about women leadership, [for example], how to present yourself. Then, we got paired up with a mentor. They were chosen for us, and that was on purpose to find people in different areas of the company that you might not necessarily know and have an opportunity to expand your career that way.

Then, there was a formal program. We had to fill out information about our strengths and weaknesses and kind of look at what the next career hurdle was for us. Within IBM, there's [the] senior technical staff member and then, after that, is the distinguished engineer, which is what I am. Then, it's IBM fellow. We looked at the [requirements to get promoted at each stage to] start to understand where we should get help from our mentors or how to grow as individuals so that we had a very attractive package when it came time to go through that process.

What were some surprising aspects of that?

DeLuca: They asked a roomful of us, 'Who wants to be an IBM fellow?' I'm raising my hand, but not everyone was. [And some of us asked the ones who didn't], 'Why don't you want to strive to have this level of technical executive?' We talked to them a little bit about it and the challenges. Through those conversations, they realized that they really do want it, but they were just kind of afraid to admit it. So, just getting over that so that they can get the support of their peers to move forward.

Pandemic may force out more working women

Talk about some of the issues related to being a working mother.

DeLuca: I have four kids -- so, two sets of twins. During the pandemic, it's so hard. You're probably hearing all over the news that more women are not going back [to work]. When it comes down to it, somebody's got to teach the kids. And, if a woman's making less than her husband, she's probably going to be the one that's staying home. I do worry about what the aftermath of this [pandemic] is going to be and how many women are going to drop out of their careers. Hopefully, [HR and business leaders will] be able to have some sympathy for rehiring them once it's time to come back into the workforce.

Inventor and storyteller

Lisa Seacat DeLuca on her children's book about IoT.

But, in general, I think that being a mom is the best reward ever, and I'm just glad I decided to become one. And I've gotten really great support from my company. Having a baby and having maternity leave [are] just a small chunk of what your whole career is. So, definitely, [companies could be] more willing to support women as they're going through maternity leave. And [they need to also] help men get paternity leave so they can go help their wives and just have that equal standard across both genders.

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