For Gail Farnsley, few things in her journey through the STEM landscape have proven as important as mentorship. Throughout her career, Farnsley has not only benefitted from the presence of mentors, but committed herself to guiding young women looking to make their way in fields related to science and technology. During her time as VP of Gartner, President of Women & Hi Tech, and then later as Outreach Chair, Farnsley has stayed heavily involved in initiatives, planning, and – most importantly – working one-on-one to provide inspiration and mentorship.
“I am a huge proponent of everyone looking for their own mentors and then, in turn, taking the next step and returning the favor with someone new. I think it’s invaluable. I think having that go-to resource helps you get perspective from someone further along in their career. They can really help you sort through the tough questions.” Farnsley elaborated, saying that the role of an advisor is both challenging and rewarding, requiring a light touch and a commitment to helping at every turn. “I reconnect with people I’ve mentored through the years when they have to make a decision. From watching the people I looked up to, I learned that it’s not about giving someone an answer, it’s about helping them think about what questions they should be asking, and what’s important to them.”
Farnsley’s own foray into the world of technology began in high school. Though her parents supported her academic achievements, the idea of college – let alone a career in business technology – was not something that they pushed for.
“I didn’t know anyone who had gone to college. My mom was a waitress, and my dad was a carpenter. I grew up knowing bricklayers, electricians, and plumbers; all of them certainly hardworking, but none of the adults I knew went to college.”
Thankfully, Farnsley was able to turn to an important mentor. She specifically credits her math teacher, who was the first adult she felt really encouraged her to pursue STEM interests. While assisting him for work study, he suggested she try out his new computer science class. Farnsley recalls painstakingly marking computer cards with Number 2 pencils to complete Basic programming assignments and realizing this was something she was good at.
“He was the very first – and maybe only one – who said ‘You can go to college.’ I told him, I can’t afford that, and that my parents couldn’t provide financial support. But he persisted and convinced me that we would figure it out.”
Farnsley enrolled at Bowling Green State University, where she did indeed earn her BS in Computer Science. After graduating, she took her first job as a programmer at Public Service Indiana, later working for Emery Air Freight and Georgia Pacific. It was at this time that she began moving toward the business and management side of computing and technology. Once again, she was able to glean insight from one-on-one advising.
“I was a good programmer, and people suggested I should try to move up the ladder. I came in to IT at a time when there was a pretty clear path. You went from programmer, to analyst, to project leader, to manager. But as someone who didn’t grow up with the adults around me going to an office every day, I didn’t really understand how the business world worked. I was lucky, though, because I had some great professional mentors along the way who helped me. They saw things in me that I didn’t even see in myself.”
But, while Farnsley was quickly making a name for herself in the tech business world, she noticed something off about her work environments. Namely, the demographics that dominated the workforce.
“I looked around and wondered, ‘where have all the women gone’? When I was in college, 40% of the people in my classes were women. Unfortunately, though, it’s gone down every year since. In my first job I had plenty of women colleagues, but as I moved up through leadership the number got fewer and fewer. When I became a senior systems analyst, I got really used to being the only woman in the room. It was rare to have other women to look up to for leadership roles.”
Farnsley began making it a priority to champion inclusivity in the workplace, especially as it pertains to gender equality. During her tenure as CIO and VP at Cummins, she led the Women’s Affinity Group, which supported the recruiting, retention and promotion of women at Cummins. Though things have gotten better over time, Farnsley is quick to point out that it hasn’t been easy.
“I think people are much more aware of the value of diversity. The business case for diversity has been made. The body of research out there is clear. Most people recognize that diverse teams are better teams. You’d have to be willfully in denial to disagree. Diverse teams outperform homogenous teams by every objective metric. But how do you do something about it? That’s a different question.”
Farnsley decided to take matters into her own hands and jumped at the chance to affect change at a higher level by joining the National Center for Women & IT in 2011. There, she led the launch of an alliance of women’s networks across the globe that could help to unite all the resources available to women who wanted more out of the STEM community. Unsurprisingly, one of the founding networks was Women & Hi Tech.
“We talk about these alliances as lifeboat strategies. You’ve got a lot of programs and initiatives to help universities recruit women, or to help companies recruit, retain, and promote women. But still, you have to keep them from leaving. The reality is that women leave their technical jobs at twice the rate of men in midcareer. We had to do something to stop the bleeding. That’s where an organization like Women & Hi Tech comes in, to give you a support group and to be around other likeminded women.”
Farnsley’s tenure at Women & Hi Tech has largely been spent around that idea of lifeboat strategies. She has made concerted efforts to increase partnerships, both at the university and corporate levels, that can help to support women growing in these scientific and technological fields. But still, Farnsley knows that Women & Hi Tech plays many roles.
“I think the organization has kind of a dual purpose. I want to make sure Women & Hi Tech maintains a strong foothold in being that lifeboat, that place that encourages women working in technology. That place where you can go that’s a no-sale zone, where I can just meet with other women and develop both professional and social networks. The other side, the outreach piece, is taking our resources and targeting them where we can make an impact.”
When Farnsley reflects on her time spent with Women & Hi Tech, she speaks warmly and with optimism. Her story of success is one that is drawn from the presence of mentors and the commitment to paying it forward to young women around her. When asked what she hopes for the future, she knows the right questions to ask.
“How do we find partners? Who are the ones who offer great programs who we can collaborate with? How can we support a woman throughout her career, no matter where she’s at. We need to keep leveraging our resources, because there are so many people doing good work for women in STEM, and specifically tech, and we just want to keep connecting, promoting, and encouraging them here in Indiana”.