Michelle Carter was a single mom in her 30s when she earned a master’s degree in computer science. It changed the course of her life.

“Computer science was definitely the turning point for me,” says Carter, associate professor at the Washington State University Carson College of Business. “Even though I had an undergraduate degree in literature, I was still working part-time and living week to week, crisis to crisis.”

Michelle Carter - Derivative from photo courtesy WSU Carson College of Business
Michelle Carter (Derivative from photo courtesy WSU Carson College of Business)

With database management skills, Carter became part of a cadre of highly employable tech workers. She worked in industry and later earned a doctorate in information systems⁠—a career trajectory Carter says once seemed unfathomable for someone like her, a first-generation college graduate who returned to school after leaving at 15.

“I know what it’s like to be a single parent without enough education to have opportunities,” Carter says. “It left me with a deep, abiding sense of wanting to help other people have choices. I became very, very interested in the role of information technologies in either enabling people or marginalizing them.”

As part of that drive, Carter wants to help other women explore careers in technology, and specifically in information systems.

“In business schools, information systems is where the students learn programming, systems design, and database design⁠—all within the context of business,” Carter says. But helping female students envision careers in the field requires expanding the ranks of women faculty, she says.

Just 28 percent of information systems faculty at US colleges and universities are women, according to the Association of Information Systems (AIS), an international organization for academic professionals. And women faculty are concentrated in non-tenure track positions.

Carter is part of a team of women faculty from five universities on a $1 million, three-year National Science Foundation grant aimed at growing the numbers of women professors in information systems. The effort also involves AIS as a grant partner as they look at gender equity issues within information systems academia and removing barriers to women’s advancement to full professor.

Female students who take introductory classes from women professors often get excited about continuing on.

“Who we have teaching at universities affects who is majoring in information systems, applying for jobs in the field, or considering a PhD,” Carter says. “If you don’t see other people like yourself in certain roles, it’s hard to imagine yourself there.”

Carter’s work in gender equity is “so much a part of who she is,” says Stacie Petter, a Baylor University professor of information systems and business analytics, who also works on inclusivity issues through AIS.

“She has a natural way of drawing folks in and making sure they have opportunities to be part of the conversation,” Petter says. “You can see that in her research, too, which focuses on how the use of information technology shapes identity.”

As a nontraditional student, Carter knows how it feels to be an outsider.

She spent her early years in England’s industrial north, in what she calls “a typical working-class family.” Women needed to work outside the home to help support their families, Carter says. But they didn’t have career options. They were factory workers, retail employees, and nursing assistants.

Carter didn’t picture college for herself. But after leaving school as a teenager, she eventually earned the equivalent of a GED and an undergraduate degree.

Carter was teaching part-time at a community college when she got the chance to get a master’s degree in computer science. “Britain was recognizing that it needed to increase the number of technology workers,” she says. “I had never even been near Excel; the only thing I’d used was a word processor. But it intrigued me. I took up the challenge.”

Carter was one of three female students in a cohort of 50 in her master’s program. She also was outnumbered by male peers when she worked in private industry.

“It’s not an easy profession for women to get into, and it’s not an easy profession for women to stay in,” Carter says. And that applies to the academic side, too.

After earning her doctorate in 2012 from Clemson University, Carter and her female colleagues compared the advice they were getting about job interviews. Another woman, who had recently married, was asked if her husband would be willing to relocate.

“For a male job candidate, being married was considered a sign of stability,” Carter says. “For a woman, it was a potential liability.”

Carter has helped raise gender equity awareness among academic professionals, Petter says.

“We’re talking a lot more about inclusivity than we have in the past,” she says. “Research shows that as teams become more diverse, they produce more creative solutions and better results.”

Gender equity work is more than individual universities can tackle on their own, so it’s exciting to have the AIS as a grant partner, Carter says.

Her role in the grant includes leading implicit bias training workshops for AIS leadership and members. The training will help people recognize subtle, ingrained biases that can cause them to favor one gender⁠—or certain groups⁠—over another as they think about candidates for awards, speaking engagements, and editorial positions at research journals.

“As humans, we exist in structures that give some people advantages. It’s OK to shine a light on these issues and try to address the challenges,” Carter says.