March 03, 2023 • By Johnny Nguyen
It was a temperate late-October afternoon when attendees gathered in adjoining rooms on the 5th floor of the UCI Science Library. They were here for a speaker event with OIT web developer Sylvia Bass, who had been invited to give a presentation on the redesign process for the updated OIT website. The event was hosted by Women in Tech Inclusive Networking (WiTIN), a newly-formed initiative under the Women In Technology at UCI banner, dedicated to hosting monthly networking and speaker events to foster open communication and support for women in technology careers and their allies.
WiTIN has its roots in Leadership, Equality, Allies, and Presence (LEAP), a certificate program founded by Stacey Rose and Shohreh Bozorgmehri of the Office of Information Technology (OIT) and jointly hosted with the Paul Merage School of Business, dedicated to helping women develop their leadership skills, gain experience networking and reshaping workplace culture.
“What makes the LEAP program unique is that it is custom designed for and by UCI women in technology,” says Mollee Elniski, managing director at the Merage School’s Leadership Development Institute and host of the certificate program. “The enterprise-wide commitment from the Merage School Leadership Development Institute, OIT, and ODIT makes a program like this possible.”
Elniski also stated that the program now boasts a total of 120 alumni, with more to come as future cohorts enroll in the program. Among these alumni are the founders and organizers of WiTIN, and although it was only their third event, the organizers had a clear and focused vision for what the initiative would be.
Following their completion of the inaugural class of the LEAP program in early 2021, the majority of the team, including School of Biological Sciences Web Developer Carolina Manel, Lead Library Services Platform (LSP) Administrator Lakshmi Arunachalam, Office of Information Technology Application Developer Srilatha Adurthi and School of Biological Sciences Marketing and Communications Manager Regina Castleman, conceptualized the idea of an initiative focused on providing a safe and supportive environment for women in technology to network and share authentic conversations about their experiences. UCI Student Affairs IT Manager Angela Han joined shortly after the group’s launch, rounding out the team.
Their drive to establish WiTIN came from experiencing first-hand how the networking component in LEAP benefitted them as women in tech, with Arunachalam saying, “[LEAP] gave me an opportunity to reflect on many challenges that women in tech are facing and how to make a difference by building impactful and inclusive networking opportunities that would introduce a culture of belonging.” Adurthi added that LEAP networking sessions even fostered conversations about tough personal and professional experiences, prompting the realization “that there are many women who are seeking some guidance and help.”
The organizing team wanted to stay in touch and impart to others what they learned from LEAP by creating an initiative that was focused on networking and mentorship on a wider scale. A standard WiTIN event begins with a presentation from a speaker working in tech across UCI, and then moves to an open networking session where attendees can get to know one another and learn about their different careers. Although the meetings are well-planned out in advance, the group prides itself on its openness and responsiveness to audience feedback. Meetings are informal and allow for virtual and in-person participation, and the team collects suggestions from attendees at the end of each event.
And according to the team, the audience has been incredibly receptive, with attendees stating that the guidance they have received from the meetings has benefitted their own professional lives. Aligning with the vision of Women in Technology at UCI, WiTIN monthly meetings are open to all allies of women in technical roles, the monthly meetings are also open to all allies of women in technical roles. Their focus on building a diverse coalition also extends to shining a light on broader social issues in tech and corporate settings, including accessibility and racial inclusivity. “WiTIN provides a great opportunity for everyone to learn from each other by highlighting a unique educational topic at every event”, says Han. Castleman also anticipates that as the audiences continue to grow more diverse, the speaker topics will reflect that as well, signifying WiTIN’s unwavering effort to represent all identities.
Shohreh Bozorgmehri, the founder of Women in Technology at UCI, is a vocal champion of WiTIN and the team’s efforts to create a dedicated networking space for those identified as women, stating, “As women and minorities become more integrated into careers in tech, having a safe space for sharing experiences is important to ensure that they have guidance, break existing ceilings, and can form allyship to help change workplace culture.” The intentions behind WiTIN’s platform reflect what the organizers had been seeking at the dawn of their professional endeavors. When asked what aspects offered by WiTIN the team wishes they had earlier in their careers, Adurthi stated that WiTIN’s networking component would have greatly benefited her, saying she would have been “more confident, knowledgeable, open-minded, and successful.” Other members echoed the sentiment that obtaining guidance from more experienced women in tech would have kept them from feeling isolated during their early careers, with Han saying, “My male colleagues were all supportive and kind, but there were gaps in our experiences and I always felt like a junior, even as I was promoted to higher positions. I was often the only woman in technical meetings or in the entire office at times.” Manel chimed in saying, “I would’ve loved to have a safe and welcoming space to ask questions, and have an opportunity to talk to other women with different technical skill levels that potentially could be my mentor or coach.”
WiTIN kicked off 2023 with a virtual event featuring a speaker from Toastmasters International, and the rest of the school year is mapped out with events discussing topics such as public speaking, DevOps, cybersecurity, project management, inclusivity, and more. As for their future goals, the team tells me that their biggest priorities are to invite more collaborators from across and outside UCI, organize more social events, and broaden their audience to include more women and allies from a broad range of IT roles rooted in technology, such as digital marketers and analysts.
Associate Director of Communications