Autistic Women in STEM: Q&A with Kayla Aitken
November 8 is National STEM Day, a day to celebrate the value of education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. At auticon, we’re taking this opportunity to highlight the experiences of autistic women in STEM. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women make up nearly half the U.S. workforce but hold only 27% of STEM jobs, and they also face a persistent gender pay gap.
For women on the autism spectrum, pursuing a STEM education and career may come with additional challenges, including limited access to autism diagnoses, educational supports, and appropriate workplace accommodations. In the following Q&A, Kayla Aitken, a Deployment Project Manager at auticon, shares her path to a career in technology and her advice for other autistic women in tech, as well as insights on how educators and employers can better support autistic women with an interest in STEM.
How did you first get interested in a career in STEM?
I’ve been interested in science and technology since I was a kid—I had subscriptions to Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. I’d always wanted to learn how to design, engineer, and build things, and that’s still a desire of mine. My dad was a self-taught coder who used to collect any discarded computer equipment that he could and build his own computers from any still usable parts, so I learned from him growing up how to build computers.
One of my first jobs was at a tech startup that sold internet systems to hotels and resorts across the U.S. and Canada. I started as a tech support call representative, and quickly learned to build and design Wi-Fi networks and sell them to the hotels. I taught myself Office Suite, especially Excel and Google Sheets, and built the company’s first rudimentary database. I also started their camera sales program and co-created our Wi-Fi University program to educate hotel owners on their networks and issues.
From there I started work at another company, an online marketplace, where I eventually was a co-creator of a new team managing communications and making decisions about how to best serve the customers using the site. My supervisor on the team used SQL to gather all the data we needed for our various daily comms. I realized that if she could write SQL, then I could do it too. So, I taught myself how to write SQL and a little HTML to not only pull the data but also create the email and text templates to send to customers associated with that data. Before the pandemic and layoffs hit, I had written about half the daily tools we used. I had even created a rudimentary weather tracking program for use in reducing incoming contacts due to weather issues. And now, I am thrilled to be currently on my newest tech journey with auticon!
What skills do you use in your work at auticon, and what do you enjoy about using those skills?
My title at auticon is Deployment Project Manager. I manage the migration of shared mailboxes, Sharepoint sites, and OneDrive accounts from on-premises systems to the cloud for one of our clients, an international bank. This is kind of another shift in focus in technology for me, because before it was internet systems with Wi-Fi, then moving to ISP type work, then more coding stuff, and now I’m not doing any coding. But, I do have to digest a lot of information and be able to distill it down for the people I’m working with so they can know what next steps they need to take. I also help mailbox and SharePoint site owners troubleshoot any migration issues they have. This involves using different management and communications skills that I gained in my past roles. I enjoy the challenge mostly because it’s new, different, and something fun involving technology.
What advice do you have for other autistic women interested in pursuing careers in technology?
First, stick with it! Don’t stress too much if you don’t get there right away, because there really is so much to learn in any tech field that it can feel very overwhelming. It’s going to take time, so be patient.
Second, beware of impostor syndrome. I think it’s really easy for neurodivergent women in tech in particular, to feel that they don’t measure up to their peers. But, based off my experience, everyone is having the same feeling, especially when trying to tackle the same mountain of information.
Third, try to find a coworker or a colleague that you can communicate with on these issues. You’ve got to have someone you can talk to about things that come up at work and how to deal with them. It helps to have a fellow female and neurodivergent friend in tech that you can go to with questions.
How can educators and employers better support autistic women with an interest in STEM?
I think autistic women in particular are good at problem solving and figuring things out. Just give them opportunities, and if they find something they don’t like, let them try something different. There are so many different avenues that can be taken in tech. I would also suggest having regular check-ins to see that they’re getting the support that they need, and that they aren’t falling through the cracks.
I don’t think the gender disparity is due a lack of interest. There are so many studies that have shown gender bias in the workplace, from differences in email conversations based on the perceived gender of the email sender, to interviewer bias (among both men and women) based on the clicking of heels. Even just to get in the door, you’re automatically fighting this massive uphill battle, and often it’s game over once it’s learned you’re autistic. So, I think training for employers and educators to help them understand unconscious and conscious bias would also be really beneficial in getting more equal representation in any field, but especially in tech.