Another Hidden Figure
by Felicia Topsale, a member of NWCT

Rona Cohen obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in Chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania before she learned how to code. As luck would have it, she took a course in software systems development in the school of engineering at Penn.

After graduation, when jobs for females in chemistry were very limited, a college friend who was working at the General Electric Missile and Space Division helped her get a programmer position. She had to take a calculus test and Fortran classes in order to work as a Fortran Programmer. Rona said, “The position opened a lot of opportunity. The women from the movie, Hidden Figures did what I did five years before me.”

With Fortran, Rona took information and turned it into design equations for satellites’ re-entry from space. “Everything I did in my tech career would be like working on an application today.”, said Rona.

Despite writing code for 10 years, Rona said, ”Engineering wasn’t for me. I have strong analytical skills. However, I’m also right-brained. I like solving problems and working with people to build new products and services.” According to Rona, she was recruited by a division of IBM to be a systems marketing representative in the remote computing arena – otherwise known as timesharing. From the beginning, she has been very successful while facing many obstacles over the past 35 year period. She is currently still using some of her tech industry knowledge as the owner of Wellinger and Associates, Inc., a management consulting firm, which she started almost 25 years ago.

As a member of NWCT with an exciting and successful career in tech, I spoke with Rona about the evolution of tech and how it has affected women.

What are the two most notable changes of the tech industry?

Rona: Technology does more and has more capabilities, like the UI and how you work with tech today. Forty years ago, no one wanted a phone watch. Today, we also have ubiquitous computing. A smartphone tracks everything. There is computing everywhere. Everything is counted and tracked. It’s frightening, but it also makes things easier.

Because of the internet and social media, I have easy access to everybody. My phone is my most important tool. Information has become so available. This is the second greatest change.

Based on your experience, what did you learn about the technology industry as a woman?

Rona: It is more difficult for women in technology sales than in engineering because of the opportunity to make a much larger income and be competitive with males. In the 1960’s, tech positions were open as long as you could pass the aptitude test. Many more sales positions have been opened to women since then. There has been a decline in the number of women who work in the engineering role in the technology industry since the 1990’s because it has been more available to males, especially young boys. They learn technology early.

Technology wasn’t made appealing to girls. They couldn’t enter the tech field because they didn’t have early computer knowledge. There is a new movement happening now that has changed that somewhat. Colleges and tech schools have begun to offer some catch up training to all people who haven’t worked with computers in their teens.

What should women do about this?

Rona: You’ve got to know how to play the corporate game. There are many strategies that impact how you play. Women have to be better at it. NWCT offers gender-based programs and we talk about how women have achieved senior roles. No one has a straight line in their career path. It is important to have the right mentors to help you successfully reach for expansive opportunities. Women also have to expand their knowledge of how tech works and integrates into many fields.

There are two things young women must do. First, play team sports. This involves taking risks and you learn what the guys learn. You get coached and you learn how to play your position. You’re less respected if you spread yourself around. Women are acculturated to fix everything. Work/Life balance for women is hard because women are still responsible for the kids. I don’t know how you fix that.

It is more difficult for women in technology sales than in engineering because of the opportunity to make a much larger income and be competitive with males. In the 1960’s, tech positions were open as long as you could pass the aptitude test. Many more sales positions have been opened to women since then. There has been a decline in the number of women who work in the engineering role in the technology industry since the 1990’s because it has been more available to males, especially young boys. They learn technology early.

Second, you must learn how to be effective in a team environment. Sports is a major training ground, but any team effort to produce results can provide insight into the ability to be successful in business.

The discussion with Rona answers a lot of questions but also leaves us with a lot to think about.

In Rona’s spare time, she likes to enjoy her favorite foods - a good steak with French fries and chocolate for dessert.

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