Technical women in television these days are simultaneously disheartened and hopeful.
They’re disheartened because even though half of the population is female, the percentage of women in television choosing careers anchored in science, technology, engineering and math — STEM, as it’s abbreviated — is shrinking.
“And it’s happening on our watch,” said Theresa Hennessy, senior vice president and group technical adviser for Comcast, and an active volunteer with several STEM-related initiatives throughout the industry.
The difficulties faced by women looking to get ahead in the tech sector have even become grist for the mainstream media, as evidenced most recently by the gender-discrimination lawsuit between Ellen Pao and her former employer, the Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
And that’s just one example.
“Look, even Google, considered a forward thinker, hasn’t figured it out,” said Maria Popo, president of Ubee Interactive, which makes cable modems and gateways used to deliver IP video.
Women in TV tech roles are hopeful because of the clear rise in hands-on work to affect change, and the arrival of data showing that measurably good things happen when leadership is a mix of men and women.
“If you have one woman on a board, there’s not much of an impact — but with two, you start to see influence occurring and with three, they affect change, thinking and performance,” WideOpenWest chairwoman Colleen Abdoulah said.
“The numbers don’t lie,” added Maria Brennan, president and CEO of Women in Cable & Telecommunications. “If I were to say to you, ‘Here’s a tool. If I give you this tool, you will substantially increase your company’s financial performance,’ my guess is you’d say, ‘Where can I get it?’”
TV VS. SILICON VALLEY
The idea that the tech scene for women in television parallels the widely reported issues facing tech-side women in other industries is a mixed bag. Some women interviewed for this piece were reluctant to compare the two, because re-employment is perceived as easier in places like the Silicon Valley.
“Women in Silicon Valley? They can get another job in three hours,” one interviewee said. “In television, it’s different. There’s a silence. You hear, ‘you’re doing a great job!’ — sometimes for decades — but doing a great job such that you get promoted? That’s another matter entirely.”
Others question whether job security is still the case in Silicon Valley, especially given the fervor around the Pao/KPCB lawsuit. Last week, technology news website re/code published a piece about a prominent and disheartening whisper heard in the Valley: That venture capitalists will think twice about hiring women from here on out.
Or maybe television really is a better place for women in technology. At Discovery Digital, for instance, the senior vice president of both product and technology is a woman, named Kaliel Roberts. Most of her team members are women; their work is building the programmer’s back-end systems.
“They’re the ones that would have come from Silicon Valley — so, maybe some of the women of tech from Silicon Valley are finding their way into TV,” Eileen Marable, senior producer of digital and social media for Discovery’s Science Channel and Velocity network, said. “The opportunity to integrate digital technology and television is just so vast and exciting — why wouldn’t you want to be here?”
TECH GETS UBIQUITOUS
And then there’s the matter of what “technology” means. These days, technology is everywhere, and it isn’t cordoned off into its own department.
“We’re living in the age of 50 shades of tech,” Ubee’s Popo said. “Product development and engineering on varying platforms is just one part of it.”
Women in television operations are particularly aware of how much technology tends to permeate their working lives.
“Our whole industry is based on technology,” agreed Rita Mullin, general manager of Science Channel. “We all have to be literate, especially on the operations side of things — technology is how we end up on the air every day.”
The engineering and operations departments at Disney ABC Networks Group deliberately work hand in hand, director of distribution services Jennifer Mayo said. “Process and procedure are now applied sciences,” she said.
Likewise for tech women working for MVPD operators, said Maria Rothschild, executive director of national video deployment engineering for Comcast and the 2015 recipient of Rocky Mountain WICT’s Technology Woman of the Year award. “In this industry, women or men in marketing, HR, customer care — we all have to be well-versed in the technology or services that we provide.”
Tech women in television are notably passionate about attracting more young women to STEM-related activities — and encouraging existing women in tech to stay.
“I’d like to hire more tech women into my organization for their perspective — but they aren’t out there to hire,” lamented Sabrina Calhoun, vice president of engineering at Bright House Networks, who volunteers as a mentor and coach to high schoolers via the FIRST Robotics program.
“I’d love to be able to say, ‘Name me five female CTOs off the top of your head,’ and get five answers,” said Stephanie Mitchko, the former Cablevision Systems executive who is chief technology officer of Cross MediaWorks and a very active STEM volunteer at New York University and elsewhere.
Ultimately, a healthy mix of both genders is probably ideal, because women and men bring different strengths to the table, Caroline Bilodeau, manager of affiliate relations for Disney and ESPN Media Networks, said. “Women troubleshoot, find solutions and pay attention to details differently than men do — not better, not worse, just different.”
Added WOW’s Abdoulah: “To me, neither gender is best on our own. We can be good, we can be great — but we can’t be excellent until we combine the qualities and differences of males and females together.”
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