In May 2022, the female students majoring in Management Information Systems at the Chambers College achieved something exceptional: every single one of them got a job by graduation day.
According to MIS Chair Graham Peace, that’s the result of their smarts and hard work – but it’s also a huge win for the department, which has made a commitment to gender equity it’s not backing away from.
“Around 10 years ago,” Peace remembered, “we had zero females in MIS. We’ve always been an accepting program and community is one of our strengths. But we needed to do better at encouraging women to enter our program.”
MIS launched recruitment initiatives like the Vincent and Barbara Dobilas Women in Technology Scholarship, as well as support and retention offerings such as networking sessions where students connect with female alum mentors.
If you don’t see or interact with a lot of people you can relate to in a field, it can make you wonder... if you belong there. The answer for women in our field is a resounding yes – but it can be so hard to go first.- Janet Fraser
These efforts have begun to pay off, with women now constituting 21% of MIS majors. That’s a big step forward from the demographics of a decade ago – but, Peace said, “It should be 50/50.”
One incentive that may now attract women to MIS is the fact that last spring’s class of female graduates was offered on average $11,936 more in starting salary than Chambers’ graduating women from other majors.
Still, Janet Fraser, an assistant teaching professor with MIS, is currently the program’s only female faculty member, and Peace is acutely aware that “we need more diversity and more females on our faculty.”
Fraser strongly agrees with Peace that “women are underrepresented at all levels of the MIS field. We don’t need to look very far to see that.”
She added, “Representation matters. If you don’t see or interact with a lot of people you can relate to in a field, it can make you wonder, consciously or not, if you belong there. The answer for women in our field is a resounding yes – but it can be so hard to go first.”
Three Mountaineer women who aren’t afraid to go first graduated from MIS in 2021 and 2022, receiving job offers among the best for students across all of Chambers. Now thriving in tech careers, these three alumnae – Audrey Rader, Karen Truong and Kelsey Rhodes – represent the best of MIS.
Safeguarding patient lives
Audrey Rader was an accounting major when she took a class with MIS associate professor Nanda Surendra and “fell in love” with MIS.
“I liked the speed,” she said. “I liked the development cycle.”
She couldn’t resist going for an MIS degree, declaring an accounting-MIS double major with less than a year till graduation.
Rader had only a minimal background in coding but enjoyed the work too much to be daunted by insecurities or others’ assumptions.
“Once I became an MIS tutor, there were times I felt some male students didn’t take me seriously,” she recalled. “They weren’t as respectful with me as with my male counterparts. But Nanda snuffed that quickly. He’d say, ‘Audrey is running this show. You guys better step it up.’”
Rader not only excelled as a late arrival to a technically demanding major, but cofounded WVU’s Women in Business student organization.
“I’ve always been aware of being a woman in a male-dominated field,” she said. “That’s never going to stop me. It’s going to make me work harder. But I wanted to create more opportunities for mentorship and networking amongst women in the industry.
“One of my favorite things Women in Business did was a salary negotiation workshop. Women tend to negotiate lower pay than men, and that starting salary affects you long-term.”
I’ve always been aware of being a woman in a male-dominated field. That’s never going to stop me.- Audrey Rader
Rader earned an offer for a position as a technical solutions engineer with Epic Systems, a female-owned health care software company that supports hospitals providing care to almost 80% of U.S. patients – including via WVU Hospitals’ MyWVUChart software.
Every day, Rader’s team takes raw data from patient visits – name, birthday, weight, blood pressure, physician notes – and moves that into relational databases.
“Then we add ‘referential integrity,’ which means the data can’t reference something like a patient or doctor that doesn’t exist. That’s important, because if you have bad data, you’re going to have bad reports. In the medical industry, that can be dangerous. I know my data integrity work is important.”
Rader speculated that Epic may have extended her an offer partly because of her contribution to one of Surendra’s class projects: a platform for vaccine distribution that students developed in collaboration with Chambers center Data Driven WV.
“It was medical, it was data – it was perfect for Epic. Having those kinds of real-world applications in class made it a lot easier to get into it and think, ‘Logistically, if we’re going to have a shipment every day, we need locations, managers, hubs.’”
Rader recalled that she “was so set on being an accountant, it took people saying, ‘Hey, you don’t have fun in those classes, but you have fun in MIS,’ for me to realize they were onto something.”
Revving her skillset from 0 to 2023
If Rader came to MIS without much of a programming background, Karen Truong walked in the door with nothing. She hadn’t learned any coding growing up in the small town of Summersville, West Virginia, and she didn’t know anything about MIS when her brother, an MIS major, launched his recruitment campaign.
“He kept telling me, ‘I think you’d like this. You’d be good at this,’” Truong remembered.
“I told him, ‘I don’t even know what MIS is.’ I had no idea it was coding. I was just going with the flow, and I thought, ‘OK, I might as well try it.’
“I was incredibly confused in my first MIS class,” she admitted. “But once I learned my first programming language, C++, everything started coming together, and I realized I got a lot of satisfaction out of solving things.”
Once Truong began working with faculty mentor Fraser, “it clicked that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
“The project Janet oversaw was called Language on Twitter: Women in STEM versus women in non-STEM. My goal was to find out if women working in STEM and non-STEM fields communicated on Twitter using similar language, or if they had language differences.
“It was language research intertwined with technology – very cool. And the result was that there was no difference between how those women communicated on Twitter. It was uncanny how similar the results were.”
Truong may have drifted into MIS, but once she knew what she wanted, she conducted an “aggressive” job search, she said – reaching out to WVU alumni and attending networking events hosted by the MIS Association.
The result, she said, was that “a lot of people helped me. All the interviews I got were referrals from my network. I’m doing front-end and mobile development at Neudesic now because I kept in touch with an old classmate. I reconnected with him after graduation and he referred me.”
Almost every task I worked on, I didn’t know how to do, and then I found out. That’s the experience you need.- Karen Truong
At Neudesic, Truong works as an associate software developer on a five-person team: three men and another 2022 alumna, Lauren Piatti. “I’ve never felt any gender discrimination there,” she acknowledged. “I appreciate that because I’ve heard from other women who have been treated differently.”
One reason Truong enjoys her job so much is the confidence she’s gotten from having hit the ground running professionally.
“What we learned in MIS is very similar to what I do in my work” – not only in terms of the programming logic, she said, but also when it comes to meeting unforeseen challenges.
“In an MIS class, if you don’t know how to do something, you have to figure it out. And most of the time, you’re not going to know how to do it. Almost every task I worked on, I didn’t know how to do, and then I found out.
“That’s the experience you need. Nanda doesn’t hold your hand, and that’s the work world. No one’s holding my hand, telling me exactly what to do and how to do it step by step.”
Surendra said students like Truong are the reason he makes his classes so demanding.
“When you give hard problems, you see students’ ways of thinking. Some just do the easy stuff. Some meet all the requirements. Some go beyond and see things nobody else sees. Karen always saw those things.”
Bridging industry and academia
Kelsey Rhodes arrived at WVU with a strong background in coding and a mother who “pushed me and told me that I was great at STEM from a young age,” Rhodes said.
“My mom was a teacher and is now a principal, so she understands the importance of STEM education and always encouraged me to pursue it. She also warned me STEM was a male-dominated field.
“It was true. During my high school computer science advanced placement exam, I was called out as the only woman in the room. Other women tried to take the course but felt it ‘wasn’t for them.’”
Rhodes’s knowledge that STEM doesn’t always welcome women is one reason why, since graduating from WVU in December 2021 and joining Deloitte as a business technology analyst, she has accepted her co-worker’s invitation to join the professional organization Women in Cloud and agreed to participate on a 4-H Code Camp panel about women in tech jobs in February 2023.
It's also why she’s now serving as a teaching assistant for Surendra’s courses, helping a rising wave of students appreciate the rigor, intensity and excitement of an MIS career.
Rhodes loves both the TA role and her job at Deloitte, where she helps design software for the Department of Defense. Still, she has felt the weight of gender bias at work. She joined her team as a product owner of one of the workstreams, working with an all-male group of developers. When she offered her coding expertise to a manager facing a deadline, he was taken aback that she had programming skills, telling Rhodes she didn’t give him “the dev vibe.”
But she persisted, he reversed course and Rhodes was onboarded to the development team. “Now I do both,” she said. “I lead a work stream and do development. It would be foolish to say the bias isn’t there. Luckily for me, Deloitte has an inclusive culture where people realize and work through their biases.”
Rhodes found her way to MIS as a sophomore. “I came to WVU as an engineering major, but it wasn’t for me. I wanted the business side of things, along with coding classes. And then I found Nanda’s class, which isn’t like other classes. It’s a big project. It’s a lot and it’s tough.”
Rhodes’s work in that class stood out to Surendra, who recruited her for a student team that designed, developed and deployed a real-world app enabling the Granville, West Virginia Police Department to create maintenance tickets for their vehicle fleet.
“The officers had been handwriting tickets, handing them to mechanics and filing all this paperwork,” Rhodes explained. “What I loved about the project is that when we started, we’d ask the client questions or present options, and they’d say, ‘Oh, we don’t need that.’
“Then, as we get into it, we’re telling them all these things – how we can get them data analytics, build graphs so they can see how long a car lasts.’ At last they agreed, and we got it to them and I remember their IT guy saying, ‘Wow, yeah. This is awesome.’
“They just wanted this basic thing, but we helped them dream big.”
Calling all dreamers
As Surendra pointed out, all three of these big dreamers were “accidental” MIS majors – Rader planned to pursue accounting for most of her time at WVU, Truong signed up for an MIS class without even knowing the course involved coding and Rhodes tried MIS as a backup when she realized engineering wasn’t a good match.
Surendra is delighted they found MIS when they did, and he hopes their stories will encourage other women to make their way to MIS not accidentally, but with a sense of purpose.
“Women can excel in MIS,” Surendra said, “and we want them to know they have a home here.”