A look at female technologists and women in IT

By By Aroun R. Deen – When she started at AP as an administrative assistant to then VP of Product Development, Information Technology (IT) department in 2005, Hiral Patel would not have believed that in three years she would join the ranks of those working in Technology proper. As a 21-year old recent graduate, business studies, then, Patel thought of the department as “a male-oriented black hole occupied by people who are in some ways in a class of their own and secluded from others and just writing codes.”

Hiral Patel

Hiral Patel

Throughout my five years here at the AP, the now project manager is one of a group of women who have swelled the ranks of women in a sector regarded by some as a male domain. Although men account for about 65% of the technology workforce here in New York, the gradual increase in the number of their female colleagues over the past few years is noticeable.

IT is one of the largest departments at AP. A diverse group of about 500 people located all over the world, about half of that number comprises the global operations unit made up of a number of parts including, the Broadcast Technology Engineers, and the Global Support Operations group. The work of the Broadcast Technology Engineers centers mainly on supporting AP’s video business.

The Global Support Operations group consists of technicians and technical managers who support AP journalists and the organization’s offices and bureaus of about three hundred in 97 countries. The other half is made up of a group of software developers for both content and backup systems, the Technology Solutions Unit and, the Innovative Information Management Unit which is manned by a group regarded as super librarians.

Aside from the upward shift in the number of women, there has also been a marked increase between 2007-2012 of female members of staff occupying leadership positions such as those of Vice President of Information Management, Director of Quality Assurance, Director of Technology and Director of Customer Support.

While AP is a newsgathering organization, Patel has come to realize that there are many behind-the-scene technology aspects for the news to reach the end user. Given how technology has brought revolutionary changes that have re-defined the media of the 21st century, an efficient IT department has become a nucleus for news organizations. As the AP moved to restructure its IT sector couple of years ago, it also opened the way for qualified women workers and female college interns with demonstrated potential to excel to gain employment in the department.

When President and CEO Tom Curley took over in2003, technology at the AP was old-fashioned. Curley, who retires this month, introduced many sweeping changes that shifted the cooperative away from the old analog wire service system to a multi-tiered digital platform of content. Responsibility for overseeing this transformation, though, fell on the shoulders of a non-traditional technologist woman, the former manager of Patel, Lorraine Cichowski.

In 2004 Curley invited Cichowski, whom he had worked with at USA Today, to work on a search engine-related project at the Associated Press on a consulting basis. The project was part of Curley’s strategy to upgrade all of AP’s technology, primarily to align the business goals to the investment in technology. Cichowski, who had to give up a PhD program she was pursuing, was asked a few months later to join AP as a full-time employee to start a product development department. It was Cichowski’s second stint at the AP.

Lorraine Cichowski

Lorraine Cichowski

Two years later, given what she was able to accomplish Curley suggested that Cichowski take over as CIO of the IT department following the retirement of the then head, John Reid. What Curley was looking for was someone adept in restructuring the department.

Upon assuming the CIO’s position, Cichowski who is now a senior vice president, started off by evaluating and reorganizing the entire department into a network of units and realigning the leadership setup. She also introduced an aggressive recruiting system on two fronts. On the one hand she opened up opportunities that attracted some experienced technologists with different backgrounds to come work for AP.  On the other hand, she set up internship programs at two technology schools in the New York – New Jersey area – the Stevens Institute of Technology and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. The focus here was to attract some of the best engineering candidates with as many women as men coming in. In addition to bringing in more women, this program also increased the cultural diversity of the department. “I think it just makes for a really rich experience” she told me. Other key transformations that Cichowski implemented over the years included new editorial systems for AP’s 2,500 journalists in the print, video and photo departments, a re-launch of AP websites to improve search and add e-commerce functionality, a new HD digital video distribution systems and a web-based registry to tag and track online content and innovative mobile products. All of these attracted their own share of qualified women in the department.  Over the past few years the department has also identified women who were excelling at their jobs and promoted them. Among these women is the current vice president Information Management, Amy Sweigert.

Amy Sweigert leads the Information Management Unit that is responsible for all of the metadata that the AP produces for content. One of Sweigert’s key responsibilities has been setting up strategies for her team. She also works collectively with her colleagues VPs on a number of projects.

Like her boss, Sweigert’s educational background is atypical of technology. She comes from a background of library and information science management on which she holds a master’s degree. But her experience on information management was gained during her days at Microsoft where she worked on software projects including content management and taxonomy before joining the AP.

Cichowski, for her part, has a law degree from George Mason University, a Master’s degree in communications-public affairs and journalism from American University and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Seton Hall University. She first joined the Associated Press in Florida as a young journalist before joining USA Today as a reporter in the business sector. There she got promoted into an editor’s position and then became deputy managing editor in the business/money section in Virginia. While still at USA Today she was given a similar task of transforming that paper’s old technology which required her to write a business plan. What she did became USAToday.com. It turned out to be one of the biggest sites during the early days of the Internet. Her introduction to technology came through that path.

Notwithstanding what she has accomplished as head of the IT department, the Senior Vice President still regards herself as an accidental CIO in the sense that she was not expecting to attain that position after returning to AP as a consultant. While she acknowledges that the changes she introduced are on track, she dismisses suggestions that the department’s progress is on account of her being a woman leader, saying she does not see a difference in performance between men and women. She attributes the department’s current success to the collective resourcefulness and commitment of every member of staff.

Amy Sweigert

Amy Sweigert

Sweigert also believes that gender has nothing to do with what makes a better leader or worker as both women and men can be good or bad managers. She does think that women sometimes have a different style of doing things that may help them to be more aware of how people are receiving information or responding to feedback as a way to have better dialogue in the working environment.

Senior business product analyst in her unit, Jennie Kessler, points though to women’s ability to run a household and be caretakers as factor that leads them to be result oriented. This she says sets women’s leadership style apart from men’s which also translates well into the working world which requires a woman to be strong, organized to manage many tasks at the same time, and taking great care to complete all her projects.  Sara Weinberg who teaches mathematics at the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers, a high school on the west side of Manhattan in New York City agrees. She says that women carry with them caretaker instinct that propels their desire to get the best out of everything they do be they teachers, managers or junior staff workers. Weinberg believes also that part of what makes women succeed is borne out of the desire to counter the widely held stereotype that women do not measure up to their male counterparts in mathematics and sciences.

In the latest edition of The Atlantic, a former State Department staffer in the Obama administration, Anne-Marie Slaughter, among other things, argues in Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, that women who achieve professional success and have a family including young children to care for at the same time “can’t have it all” as both parents and working professionals.  Ms. Slaughter says she resigned from her high-level position as the first woman director of policy planning in the State Department – a position she had long dreamed of – to go home and take care of her two teenage boys. Slaughter’s premise in some ways goes to bolster Weinberg’s and Kessler’s argument about women and the effect of their caretaker innateness regardless of who they are or what they do.

Cichowski’s style of leadership is built around team collaboration and consensus building at every level. For example, all four vice presidents work collectively to ensure that information management concerns are represented across the whole software life circle. A keen listener herself, the CIO holds regular meetings with her VPs and other unit leaders during which they share views and discuss issues.

Director of Product Design, Dante Moore, who has worked closely with the CIO since 2006, describes her leadership style as empowering. He says she gets the best effort from her staff by “collaboratively seeking their ideas and contributions to meet business objectives and by rewarding those who excel.”

Working alongside men particularly when they are in the majority tends to have its own challenges for women. But Amy Sweigert sees little or no reason for much concern. She believes that working together with men nurtures some level of confidence as she would go into meetings and be able to be clear about what she wants to get out of it. She sees all staff, be they male or female, as peers. She nonetheless thinks that having women in senior positions provides an example and encourages other women to feel at home and comfortable in their groups. Patel, who at first did not think of technology as an obvious place for her, was encouraged by both the constant support she received from the CIO as well as the presence of other women she met in the department.

The project manager cherishes her newfound potential and enjoys working as a technologist. She says it’s about time other women get involved and contribute to the field by not merely thinking of themselves as consumers of such technology products as iPhones, Facebook and Blackberries that they use day in and day out but also how the technology behind them comes about.

Notwithstanding the numerous successes that define many women as leaders or mere workers, stereotyping of them still goes on. Once a guest who was visiting the AP was ‘amazed’ to learn that the organization’s Senior Vice President and Executive Editor is a woman. His reaction was that Kathleen Carroll must have been a “tough iron-lady to have gotten there.” Though it is true that most highly successful women go through rugged processes that their male counterparts hardly experience to reach their peak, it is unfair to base accomplishments of women to their being tough or highhanded. The likes of Cichowski, Carroll, Sweigert or even Patel are not “tough” or “iron ladies.”  They just happen to be people who know how to do things right.

The advancement of women in the IT department at AP does not in any way hinder the path of men in that department. There is no evidence that women are unduly promoted at the expense of their male colleagues. Cichowski says she strongly believes in giving all of the staff equal opportunity. Three of her vice presidents are men while other men also head various sections.  As the Senior VP and CIO maintains, standards at the department are high and everyone has to meet them.  Patel’s elevation from administrative assistant was not based on her being a woman or mere interest in technology. She went through a rigid volunteering period that lasted for months.  Cichowski has not only transformed the IT department of the AP into an efficient system but also one that has opened it up to diverse groups of technology talents including women.