Martha Elliott remembered walking into the office to interview for a web designer position when she was 40-years-old.
“The interviewer,” Elliott recalled, “looked puzzled and said, ‘I'm sorry we're not looking for receptionists at this time. We're looking for a web designer.’”
“I have to say that the early years were not easy,” Elliott told CMSWire about her effort to break into tech. “As a woman, and especially as a black woman, you had to constantly prove yourself over and over again.”
No Backing Down
Today, 20 years later, Elliott is a Boston-area web technologist, with computer and web programming, webmaster, front-end development and web operations experience.
She, like thousands of other women and minorities in tech today, embrace and champion the spirit and values of the man we named this Monday holiday after: live strong, be independent, fight for your rights, speak up, embrace freedoms and treat others equally. This was the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated April 4, 1968.
“Many people think of MLK Day as a day just for African-Americans, but the reality is that it's a day for all people,” Elliott said. “It's a day for us to be remembered that there is only one race, and that's the human race. True unity in diversity is a beautiful thing, like the many flowers in one garden. You can change the laws, but to make real progress you must change people's hearts, which requires all of us to do our part.”
Elliott began her tech journey teaching computer skills in elementary school. She later took part in a large government grant that introduced client-server technologies and a "computer on every desk."
Always interested in technical gadgets, her first real exposure to computers was in 1979 when she worked as a teacher's assistant in a small college town elementary school that, over the summer, built a computer lab.
“All these new computers, and no one knew what to do with them,” she said. “The head teacher looked at me and said, ‘Figure it out.’ So that's what I did and instantly fell in love.”
Hire Someone Else
During the Internet boom in the '90s, Elliott knew she had to be part of that world. But would that world accept her?
“I remember declaring to my co-workers that I wanted to learn to ‘build web pages,’” Elliott told CMSWire. “One male colleague replied, ‘HTML is really difficult. Maybe you can hire someone to build you a web page.’ I learned then to keep my thoughts to myself and just keep pressing forward. I learned HTML anyway I could and when I went to put myself out there for jobs the reaction was pretty interesting.”
Hire someone else? No thanks, Elliott said. She persisted, and eventually got her first big break as a webmaster for a national non-profit organization.
Through any challenges Elliott had as a black woman rising in tech, she always had her passion for her work.
“It wasn't a struggle because I was so passionate about doing this work that I was going to find a way and nothing and no one was going to derail me,” she said. “Almost every class or training I attended the instructor would come up to me and say, ‘Are you sure you're in the right class?’”
Can tech be intimidating for a woman, regardless of race?
“Things are so different now than ‘back in the day,” Elliott said. “Sometimes as women we suffer from what's called the ‘impostor syndrome,’ and we doubt or down play what we know. I think it's important that we encourage and support each other. As women our voices and opinions need to be heard.”
Elliott likes what she sees in the industry today on some levels -- changes in her male counterparts she said started a little more than 10 years ago.
“My male counterparts were much more collaborative, I began to see more women being hired in key roles and the IT departments started to become more diverse,” she said. “Was it perfect? No, but I began to see progress and have hope that maybe in my lifetime I might see some real change."
Companies are trying. Intel’s CEO said this past week the company could spend up to $300 million in its new diversity workforce initiative. Women made up 26 percent of the computing workforce in 2013, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Last summer, Google released numbers that had 83 percent of its international tech staff as males.
Elliott, from the trenches, still feels the tech industry-wide has a long way to go.
“When I go to conferences I'm really disappointed,” she told CMSWire. “I'm still seeing a mainly white male audience.”
With more tech people like Elliott, those who embrace MLK values like persistence and perseverance, that can change.
“We certainly have made some progress,” Elliott said, “but we still have a ways to go before we truly are that nation that King talked about, a nation where we are judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.”