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Why this woman says we're in a post-'having it all' world

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The career-versus-family conundrum covers up deeper issues for women in the workplace says this tech industry maven.

A new phrase lit up the Twitter-verse this month when Kara Rota, a rising presence in the New York City tech scene, posted the query: “How do we mentor girls in a post-'having it all' world?”

I tracked down Ms. Rota, Director of Editorial & Partnerships for Cookstr and board member of Girls in Tech NYC, for an interview near her Tribeca office.

Her Twitter comment referenced the conversation struck this summer by Anne-Marie Slaughter's Atlantic article on the struggle for women to balance careers and family.

Ms. Rota says her generation of career women needs to address issues beyond that particular struggle.

“I think that the assumption is that women have made so many corporate achievements that now it's all about, 'Women are holding themselves back by still wanting to have babies,'” she told me over coffee. “I think that conversation artificially puts the onus back on women to just figure it out. That's really ignorant of the amount of structural change that still needs to happen.”

Here are some of the advances she'd like to see to foster women in her own industry. The technology sector has perhaps the most obvious gender gap of any progressive field.

Acknowledge the need for work-life balance
“I think we really have to change what it means to work full time, on a really fundamental level,” Ms. Rota says. That goes beyond just making time for parenting, she says, but whatever else is central to employee's lives.

For her it's not about making jobs easier, but creating a culture of trust in how a worker carves out her hours. When it comes to spending time not at work, she says, “The 'why' has to be taken out of it. When you leave the office and you have to give a 'because,' that's an excuse.” Instilling more flexible work hours would make tech careers more appealing to individuals, both male and female, who are wary of sacrificing all other pursuits in the name of their job.

Teach more girls how to code
Ms. Rota sees the shortage of women with technical skills as one of the greatest roadblocks to equality in the tech industry. Here's a recent report from Forbes:

According to Reuters, 30% of the 450 American tech executives polled said their IT groups have no women at all in management positions. What’s more, when the same group of executives was asked whether women were underrepresented, roughly one half said no.

“There's this psychological block for many women with coding,” she says, “I think a lot of it is just cultural.” But once that skill is mastered, she says, it opens countless other doors in terms of programming, management, and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Plus, she sees deeper implications of knowing how to code. “I think that having skills that are extremely marketable puts you in a position of power. Anything that drives self-esteem and confidence especially in young women is really vital right now.”

Present tech as a creative industry
“There are all kinds of jobs in tech that fit the sociable, creative strengths we typically associate with women,” Ms. Rota says. She names user interface design as an example.

“Selling technology as a creative enterprise could help interest the next generation of workers. All of us like to build things and see that to fruition, it's such human nature. Whether that's making dinner or building a house, there's so much reward in that. And I think that's why many people want to become [web] developers, to build something beautiful.”

Promote mentorship
Ms. Rota says that many young women entering tech struggle with self-advocacy. “'How do I speak up for myself in a way that's proactive?'” she remembers wondering. “How do I ask for a raise, how do I ask for a proper title?'” Acknowledging such uncertainties can feel even more dis-empowering, she says, and that's where having a mentor can mean all the difference for advancing your career.

Especially at start-ups, she says. Ms. Rota says she's been extremely fortunate in her career at Cookstr, but for many young workers, “When you're working at a start-up you have to make sacrifices at the expense of the company.” She says a mentor can help young women in tech recognize which equities are worth asking for.

We may be post this summer's can-women-have-it-all discussion, but with due attention to issues such as these raised by Ms. Rota, I'd like to believe professional women are truly just pre-'having it all.'

Photo: Kara Rota at a recent Girls in Tech event

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure