Jordan Kalal is a software engineer with Cerner and volunteer mentor with Tech sHeroes, a program of the Kansas City Women in Technology that encourages middle school girls to explore careers in technology.
Tell me about yourself and your job.
I came to Cerner two years ago after studying computer engineering. I work as a software engineer on a research and development team. I joined up with Tech sHeroes about a year ago and have been working with them ever since to develop a curriculum for their middle school program.
Why are women underrepresented in technical fields?
That’s a question that has a lot of answers. It is in part because of impostor syndrome, which is not a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it’s the condition of being underrepresented. That keeps people out. You become the representation for your gender. That’s a big role to take on and people don’t want to do it.
A lot of it is social conditioning, which we were overcoming up until the 1980s. That’s why every other STEM field has fared a lot better than us in the technical field. As toys and movies started getting into tech and computers more, they were geared towards boys and they were geared towards a bad image. You have two factors working against you. Your male peers have been exposed more to it all throughout childhood and adolescence. Then the way it’s represented in movies and comic books and all of that — very nerdy, very loser-ish.
It’s a lot to overcome to go into a field that you may have never been exposed to. It’s not like it’s represented in schools really at all. You know what it is to be a physics major or a math major or go into art because you’ve done all those things. Sometimes you haven’t ever written a line of code by the time you get to college, and then they say, what do you want to be?
Is that changing?
We are starting to see the very first bits of change, but it is highly, highly ingrained. I like to pick “Big Bang Theory” as an example because everybody knows that one. Nerd culture and computers are getting bigger exposure, but it’s still very bad. “Big Bang Theory” is just an excuse to be able to laugh at that nerd-dom and the loser vibe and all the stuff they’re interested in. It’s good that at least it’s becoming mainstream, but it’s bad that it’s still in such a negative light.
Again, women aren’t represented there. It’s a pattern that goes across all media, whether it’s movies or shows or books like that. It’s pretty prevalent, at least in the US.
In the 1960s, not many women worked outside the home, but the economy’s lack of personal income growth made two-earner households common and gave women new opportunities. Looking back on that longer perspective, how do you see the trajectory in the big picture going from there to now?
That’s actually a very interesting trend to look up. There’s a wonderful graph that marks four STEM careers — I believe physics, chemistry, IT, and maybe mathematics. It shows, starting in the 1960s, the percentage of women in those fields. It starts out really low — you know, down to zero. It shows them trending up, trending up, trending up. Then while the other three careers continue trending up to the point we’re at now — we’re right about 40 to 50 percent for most of those STEM careers – computer science actually dips right at 1987, I believe, when personal computers were introduced. They were marketed and put in little boys’ rooms. It was the first time you have that disparity in exposure.
These boys were then choosing that field, knowing something about computers. It deterred their female counterparts because they just looked at it like they were already a step behind. "I’ve never used this, I’ve never programmed before, and oh, my gosh, look at them, they have. I’m always going to be behind and I’m not ever going to be able to catch up with them."
That’s why we trended down to the point we’re at now, where from 1991 we were at 37 percent of women in computer-related fields and now we’re down to, I believe, 26 percent. If you go even farther, it’s only 12 percent of women in software engineering kind of roles. On the trend down, that’s a nine percent drop just in my lifetime. That’s a massive drop that really can’t be ignored.
Do you see that same gender disparity in countries like India, which was well positioned educationally and vocationally to embrace work in new technologies as an economic imperative?
I don’t have the stats outside of the US. It’s on my to-do list to investigate all those. I imagine the numbers are different just because of our cultural ecosystems that we grew up in, whether it’s how hard we push good-paying jobs and how hard we push going into a high intellectual field. Of course, our exposure to all our social media and stuff like that. I’m sure the numbers are definite and quite fascinating. I just haven’t looked into them yet.
What response do you get from mentoring and what results have you seen?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive and our support has just been off the charts. Schools are happy to take us in and give us the time to do this. A lot of them are backing us with their teachers, rolling it into their extracurriculars, categorizing it in the same way as like football or basketball so that teachers can come sponsor us. Even within Cerner, when I put out the call on our internal boards for mentors, it was 20 people emailing me all within 24 hours. “I want to help any way I can. If I can’t mentor, I’ll help you write the code" and stuff like that.
It’s been positive because everyone can see the inevitable fallout of not only a lack of women in engineering, but just a lack of engineers in general. I like to say I focus on a really bad problem, but there’s a bad problem looming for all of us. There’s not going to be enough engineers to even maintain the code that we have written today. It’s sad to think that we’re going to come to this weird standstill as there’s no further development because we used all of the developers to maintain.
What level of diversity are you seeing among your colleagues?
I don’t have the numbers on that. We obviously have quite a diverse campus here. Just because we have a fabulous reputation in the engineering world, a massive portion of our engineers are self-referrals. Someone’s here and they say, “You know, this is a great company. You should come work for Cerner.”
Specifically, getting back to women engineering, around this controversy, a lot of people are starting to look at recruiting women in the US who have dropped out of the market. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this stat, but 45 percent of women in tech fall off of the tech wagon, essentially by the age of 35. You’re talking about half your female workforce in this industry leaving for another job in a different career path. A lot of people, when they talk about the reason for the shortage or trying to vie for that, they say, why don’t we start hitting that demographic? And saying, these women aren’t staying home to become mothers — they’re leaving for a different career because they’ve been pushed out by the culture or stuff like that. We say, if we can just get them back, then it would be a massive boost in numbers without all that trouble.
Is there the equivalent of refresher training to re-integrate women back into the technical workforce whose experience is a few years old?
We like to say in the programming world that it doesn’t matter which language you know. As long as you know how to code, you can code forever. Anything like that would almost be standard training, getting you up to date on which languages the company uses and what tools they use. That’s different for every company. If you were trying to re-integrate someone who has been in a different field for a while, it would just be as easy as putting them through their normal training. You’re just telling them, here are the languages, here are some online courses if you aren’t familiar with it, and here are the tools we use. That’s all standard.
Cerner gets a lot of press for supporting diversity and is admirably active in social causes, yet when I look at its corporate leadership team, it’s almost all white men. There are three women and no minorities out of 15 on the corporate leadership team and four women out of 16 in the executive leadership group. Do women face business barriers as well as technical barriers?
The lack of women in leadership is, of course, something that’s highly studied. Yes, it’s there across all industries. Healthcare is actually the number one industry to go upwards and try to achieve those goals, so I’m in the right place if I want to go up.
But yes, that’s a whole other set of interesting statistics and reasoning. It’s almost two different barriers — the barrier to technology and the barrier going up. It is prevalent across all industries. That’s another one where it is changing, and that one is changing rapidly due to women’s success in startups. They actually have much better statistics than men, and certain investors are starting to key into that. As the startups become not startups, it will shift. As we get this next generation of empowered women coming in, I think we’ll see a shift very rapidly in the upper ranks.
Companies like IBM always promoted engineers, while others rewarded experience in sales or management. That may be a barrier that isn’t gender-based, but rather that technologists might not have taken the right roles to lead a particular company. How do you see that unfolding in healthcare?
I think it’s becoming more and more appreciated to have a technical background. It’s hard to find that mesh of a people person and engineer. But more and more companies are starting to see that it’s easier to teach an engineer how to do business and be business savvy and interact with other people than it is to take a business person and try to teach them how to write code and how to make those decisions. You need someone with that technical background to make those instant choices and to make those strategic choices. You have to have someone who understands all facets of it.
That’s not to say that the business people don’t have a whole new skill set that I don’t. But it’s easier to teach them the business savvy than to teach the tech to someone else. Again, it’s a shift in the way companies are thinking and the paradigm they’re following to try to get the most. You have to be a little more agile now than you’ve ever had to have been to be on the path to be competitive.
What actions would you recommend for someone who is interested in getting more females and minorities into healthcare IT?
If you have a passion, it is not difficult to find others who have that same passion. My only recommendation is to choose one point and try to fix it. We talk about the pipeline of engineers – I’ll use that as my example since I’m familiar with it. We talk about the fallout very young with gender stereotypes and then with toys. By fourth grade, half of females aren’t interested in STEM any more. Then you talk about the high schoolers trying to choose a career and they don’t go into this. Then of course, even past that, going into career, you have the fallout of women engineers from tech.
My suggestion is to try to just fix one piece. Choose one thing and do it very well. Focus on an age group and try to key into them and provide a quality experience that’s fun and that keeps them engaged. I always say that by the time people get out of Tech sHeroes, I’d love it if they can write a website and write their own code, but more importantly, I want them excited about tech. I have taken that one group and I’ve got them excited about tech. They totally know what engineering is. They totally know what computer science is. They know what code can do now.
I’ve impacted that one group instead of trying to run five after-school programs at a bunch of different levels and having them be watered down. Choose something, be passionate about it, and greatly impact a certain group.