Nearly 60 percent of women contribute to the U.S. workforce and they account for more than half of all workers in management and professional occupations. Over the next decade women have the potential to add trillions of dollars to the growth of the global economy. Yet gender inequity continues to create significant hurdles for women in the workplace. These obstacles are particularly evident in the technology industry, where women hold just one-quarter of the jobs and only 8 percent of leadership positions.
Women in tech are paid less and promoted less often than men—disparities that have contributed to nearly 60 percent of women leaving the industry at midpoints in their careers. Additionally, women-led tech firms receive less funding, despite studies that show they get an average 35 percent higher return on investment than their male counterparts.
These issues have inspired several women in Minnesota to devote their lives and careers to breaking down barriers, overcoming obstacles and transforming the technology industry. “Women in Leadership Transforming Tech” is a series of feature articles and a white paper from The Bailey Group that highlight these extraordinary individuals and their journeys.
Julie Durham’s technology career has followed a fast-paced and winding road, with Durham actively in the driver’s seat, following her curiosity to the next stop on her career journey.
It all began when Durham enrolled in her school’s first computer science class at the age of 15. She was the only female in that class the first two years it was offered. Her interest in technology continued, prompting her to major in finance and information systems at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), where she also spent her senior year working at General Electric as part of RPI’s co-op program.
After graduation, Durham joined ExxonMobil—the largest company in the world at the time. While there, she took charge of learning everything she could about project management, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and retail. She was also exposed to SAP, a global software company that first launched its “Systems, Applications and Products” in data processing in the 70s, enabling businesses to store, access and manage information through a common corporate database. Exxon was in the process of implementing SAP worldwide.
A few years later, Durham’s curiosity about SAP led her to take a job in their New York office. She’d travel Monday through Thursday, then use her Fridays “off” to conduct informational interviews with anyone who’d grant them to her, on any topic she encountered. And, she said, “I’ve never had anyone say no.”
“One of the most beautiful things about working with technologists is if you ask for help, almost everyone will help you,” she explained. “I spent the first year at SAP building my network in any way I could, to get people to teach me. I basically became a full-time student again.”
While at SAP, Durham got her first exposure to Best Buy, which was a client. She helped the Best Buy team implement SAP technology as it expanded globally in countries like Mexico, China, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Durham then did client work for Nike before leaving SAP for a wild-card offer: a chief architect and interim chief information officer for Al-Futtaim, one of the largest and most diversified privately owned conglomerates with exclusive rights to brands like IBM, IKEA, Panasonic and Volvo.
“That was probably the first time I was more conscious about what it meant to be a female in technology,” Durham said. “Talk about a minority within a minority within a minority, which frankly I think was part of the reason they liked me. I was an American female who wanted to come to the Middle East, and I actually understood technology. I was kind of a unicorn.”
After a year in Dubai, Durham was ready to return to the U.S. and joined Best Buy. She was offered an opportunity to build an IT organization as Best Buy worked to in-source its technology and gain exposure to broader technology platforms. She went on to lead the teams responsible for launching Big Data and the technology supporting Best Buy’s call centers and Geek Squad.
In September, Durham accepted a new position as the vice president of software engineering at UnitedHealth Group. In her role, she is responsible for building the commercial grade software that supports Optum’s payment integrity business. It is a move that provides Durham the opportunity to learn a completely new industry at a Top 10 Fortune 500 company, and it keeps her close to her passion: leading technologists that build software at scale.
While statistics show women in technology face unique challenges based on their gender, Durham hasn’t felt held back by it. “Computer code doesn’t discriminate if you’re a man or a woman, if you’re 15 years old or 65,” she said. “But you have to be vulnerable and you have to ask for help. I think that gets harder as you get more senior, and I don’t see women do that as often as men.”
Now a leader in her industry, Durham is passionate about helping people see a broad career path in technology so they don’t mistakenly think, “I don’t want to code my whole life, so I don’t want to go into technology.” She is equally passionate about helping women understand the need to define their own career path, which is exactly what she’s done for herself. “If you’re waiting around expecting your company is going to create this ‘women in technology’ path for you, you’re probably in the wrong spot. You have to own your own career. It’s not the company’s job; it’s our job to do that.”
Rather than one specific mentor, Durham maintains a personal “board of directors”—people collected throughout her career whom she can turn to for advice when needed.
For Durham, it all comes back to following her curiosity, which she describes as the only barrier of entry to becoming a technologist. “Stay curious, stay driven, and you will go as far as you want,” she said. “I wasn’t always the smartest person in the room, but I was those two things, and it has resulted in a career that has literally taken me around the world, and has limitless potential ahead of it.”
Read about more “Women in Leadership Transforming Tech” here.