The Ladies of IT: MoWINs Program Breaks Down Barriers for Women

Of the dozens of displaced workers who applied to MCC’s healthcare IT technician certificate course in the fall, 19 were accepted. Fourteen of the 19 are women.

For a career field that is notoriously devoid of women, that’s a pretty big deal.

The certificate program, offered as part of the IT Career Pathway of MCC’s MoHealthWINs program, is one piece of an effort to recruit more women to STEM careers. (Women make up less than a 25% of STEM workers, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration.)

I recently sat down with seven of the women in the program–Sheela Perumalla, Eleanor Whitten, Didi Collins, Shawna Wilson, Cassandra Collins, Julia Haupt and Ginger Kuftack–to talk about what led them to enroll, how they felt about their experience in the program, and everything in between. Here is what the women had to say…

 

Back: Didi Collins, Eleanor Whitten, Jayasheela “Sheela” Perumalla, and Cassandra Collins.  Front: Didi Collins and Julia Haupt.
Back row (left to right): Shawna Wilson, Eleanor Whitten, Sheela Perumalla, and Cassandra Collins. Front row: Didi Collins and Julia Haupt.  Not pictured: Ginger Kuftack.

 

Lauren: Have you heard that the MoHealthWINS staff affectionately refer to you all as The Ladies of IT?

Julia: (laughs) Let’s just say, they don’t call it a ‘motherboard’ for nothin’!

~~~

Lauren: I understand each of you has racked up at least twenty years of experience in various IT and telecommunications positions.  Tell me about that.

Group discussion: Several of us started working in IT-related positions in the 80s, learning on systems like DOS, MBASIC and Lotus, on Tandy equipment and even old IBM electrics.  We all have some college and technical training, but most of our IT knowledge is self-taught, and all of us have worked in call centers.

Sheela: I earned a bachelor’s degree when I lived in India.

Shawna: I have a master’s degree and some professional certifications.

Ginger and Eleanor: We are both military veterans with telecommunications training.

~~~

Lauren: Tell me about your experiences as women in male-dominated fields.

Julia: I used to be a member of the Teamsters Union and I remember a time when it was perfectly acceptable to say, “We only hire white males.”  Companies would find ways to not hire women, or if they hired them, to give them the worst jobs.

Group discussion: Over the years, we have tried to balance work and family when companies were not always willing to accommodate time off for childcare and other personal demands. Yet, we continued to gravitate to more technical careers, finding that STEM jobs pay more.* While it was sometimes isolating, we found that the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. We like working with our hands.

Ginger: I’ve always been a tomboy. But it’s okay, you get used to working with all guys. Most of them leave you alone—they don’t care.  And the smart ones will work with you.

Group discussion: Strong personalities are important — standing up for yourself and having a sense of humor go a long way.

~~~

Lauren: All of you we laid off mid-career. Talk about that.

Group discussion: Many of us had topped out in our old positions.  There was no more room for advancement, no pay raises, and the jobs had stopped being a challenge. We had stopped growing. When each of us heard about the MoHealthWINs program, it was a no-brainer. Being in our forties and beyond, our children are either grown or in high school. Now was the time to focus on our own personal and professional development and dive into a career change.

Eleanor: The program’s like being in the army again. It’s like boot camp.

Cassandra: It’s scary, but it’s exciting.

The Ladies of IT, with instructor Mary Brown
The Ladies of IT, with IT instructor Mary Brown

Lauren: What do you consider is the biggest benefit of completing the healthcare IT technician certificate program?

Group discussion: The IT and healthcare IT career pathways provide opportunities for continued learning, as well as a level of job security we haven’t experienced before. In an age where all information has gone digital, technical support will always be needed. We see ourselves getting in on the ground floor of a stable industry.** We don’t see this training as an end-point. It is only the beginning.

Julia: We have to be fearless. We know we’re the pilot program for this training. We just want to give a big shout-out to President Obama. We’re so appreciative of a government administration that supports and sees the value in retraining workers.

Didi: This program has re-awakened the part of me that loves to learn and loves to grow. When I can’t crawl around on the ground anymore to fix stuff, I’m going to get my PhD and train others.

 

*Women in STEM jobs earn 33% more than women in non-STEM jobs.

**MoHealthWINs IT training can lead to certifications as a network administration engineer, computer support technician or computer support specialist.

###

 

Over the past six months, nearly 200 students have received services through the MoHealthWINs program, including job training in one of four career pathways: nursing, environmental services, IT and healthcare IT.  Eleven area employers are actively engaged in curriculum development, as well as providing field experience opportunities for students.