Women in Technology at UCI: First Event Offers Encouragement and Empowerment

September 24, 2020

The new Women in Technology at UCI (WiT UCI) organization had 243 guests at its first event on Sept. 10, a virtual panel focused on “Altered Environments, New Opportunities.” There were faculty, staff, alumni and students of all genders, from across UCI and other higher education institutions and from industry. “This shows a great deal of support and interest around the experiences of women and minorities in tech fields during these altered times,” says Shohreh Bozorgmehri, director of the Student and Academic Services Division of UCI’s Office of Information Technology (OIT) — the inspiration behind WiT UCI.

Bozorgmehri moderated the event with Debra Richardson, an emeritus faculty member and founding dean of the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). Richardson was also instrumental in helping bring WiT UCI to life.

The virtual event, “Altered Environments, New Opportunities,” hosted by Women in Technology at UCI.

The opening keynote by Judy Olson, professor emeritus of the School of ICS, addressed the practical realities of working remotely and presented ways to optimize effectiveness in a virtual environment. The discussion that followed featured three panelists:

  • Katie Chappell, manager of communications and training at UCI’s Office of Information Technology.
  • Jenn Stringer, associate vice chancellor for IT and CIO at UC Berkeley; and
  • Van Williams, vice chancellor of information technology at UC Santa Cruz.

Williams opened the discussion by acknowledging what he has witnessed in his own household with his wife and three young children. “It is clear to me that what is happening right now during this COVID response, it has so much greater impact on her, and her professional life, than it is having on me, and that is with an intentionality on my side to try and be engaged.”

This recognition resonated with Jennifer Wong-Ma, an associate professor of teaching in ICS who is part of the WiT UCI inaugural advisory board. “This hit close to home for me, as each day is a continued struggle to balance work and family responsibilities.”

Williams stressed that managers should be reaching out to staff during this time to ask how the organization might better support them — and not only women but also Hispanics and Blacks, who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. He further advocated for a “culture of gratitude and appreciation.” Stringer seconded that, stressing the need for empathy and “thinking about the people [who are ] often the most unsung folk.”

Yet Wong-Ma was also struck by the ways in which the panel advocated for women to take risks and seek out new opportunities during this time.

Chappell talked about her own decision last summer to come to UCI. “I actually found out we were expecting a baby between my first and second interviews, so I had to make the decision about whether to take the risk [not] knowing the environment [and] understanding that I wouldn’t have the same [FMLA] protections.” She ultimately decided to take the risk. “But it definitely made me think a lot about [why] we feel so burdened by taking risks and why it feels easier to make safe career moves or to not make career moves.” She then made it clear to women in the audience that they should “absolutely take the risk.”

Stringer similarly advocated for risk taking. “You can always say no, but you can’t say no if you don’t take the shot.” She went on to encourage people to explore new opportunities during the pandemic. “There are some benefits that crisis brings, sometimes, to allow people opportunities to do work that they wouldn’t have otherwise, to step into roles and take a leadership opportunity [or] to run a new service.”

Wong-Ma admits she is often reserved and practical in her decisions. “Hearing the panel encourage listeners to continue to strive for advancement during these times has led me to take advantage of opportunities to speak with senior faculty and others on campus,” she says. “The levelled environment of Zoom has enabled more interactions and for my voice to be heard equally.”

Bozorgmehri also appreciated the panel’s overall message. “I enjoyed the authenticity of the presenters and the emphasis on bringing empathy, humanity and gratitude to the workplace — all which were presented not just to get us through these difficult times, but to open our minds to new opportunities.”

A recording of the virtual event is available online, as is a summary of the key takeaways:

  • You have to speak up and ask — don’t disappear in the world of Zoom and remote work.
  • Continue to look for career and leadership opportunities in the midst of challenges and change.
  • Empathy is important as a people leader. Take a moment for gratitude.
  • We need to find the time to continue to have conversation on diversity issues and bring in more voices.

WiT UCI certainly plans to continue the conversation, so join the mailing list to stay informed about future events and learn how to add your voice to the dialogue. “These discussions,” notes Bozorgmehri, “are neither common nor easy but a necessary step to create pathways for structural changes that improve work for women and minorities.”

Shani Murray