March is Women’s History Month and ITS is celebrating by highlighting women and nonbinary Tar Heels in technology. All month long, ITS News will share profiles and Q&As to share the breadth and diversity of the Carolina women-in-tech experience. For the full list of profiles and to read some historical perspective, visit Celebrating Women’s History Month: Carolina women in IT.
About Emily Brassell
Emily Brassell is the Associate Head of Software Development for UNC-Chapel Hill’s University Libraries. She has a bachelor’s degree in French and math from Guilford College and a Master of Science in Information Science from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Brassell was appointed as associate head in 2020. Previously, she was application development project manager for the University Libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Tell us about your role in IT.
I work with a team of developers to create, maintain and customize applications that facilitate and enhance access to the University Libraries’ collections. We work with colleagues on the library website, catalog, display of archival materials, and many other assorted projects, using a wide range of technologies.
We also build internal tools to streamline our colleagues’ workflows and pipelines to extract data from one system and transform it for loading into another. One of my current projects, for example, is a multi-year migration of archival description into an open-source archives information management system, including the implementation of a new discovery layer. It’s a really interesting cross-departmental collaboration that invites exploration of some fascinating archival materials.
What excites you about the future of your field?
I’m excited that we’re making digitized materials more easily accessible to users at UNC and beyond by optimizing search capabilities, enhancing browsing, etc. For instance, our collections on the history of the South include some incredible primary sources of value to people around the world. It feels like a particularly important moment to make historical documents freely available to those who want to understand our complex history and its influence on our lives today.
Has your gender been a factor in your career trajectory, path or choices? How so?
My first job as a developer, fresh out of grad school, was at a small start-up where I never really felt at ease. It’s hard to tease out personality/gender/culture, but I wish I’d felt more comfortable asking questions about technical issues. I had this misconception that I was just supposed to know everything already. A structure that prioritized communication and included mentoring would have made a huge difference.
Because I didn’t feel confident in my programming skills, I let myself be nudged into project management. I’m not sorry; I’ve ended up with a role that includes both development and project management, and I really like the range of tasks on a given day. But I wonder what might have been different if I’d spoken the same language as the (male) senior developers on the team.
Have you had a mentor in your career or someone else who made a difference for you?
I’ve had several amazing bosses who have encouraged my career growth, reminded me of my strengths, facilitated continued learning and just generally been wonderful people to work with. Their support has been invaluable.
I’ve also had incredible colleagues — smart, kind people who can find the most obscure Oreo varieties imaginable. One of the hardest points in my career was returning to work after having a baby, and I’m so grateful for the working mothers who helped me normalize the big feelings I was feeling and sort through the endless logistics of becoming a parent. Likewise to the #covid-jr parents who shared their experiences navigating through the pandemic and made the whole mess bearable.
What would make it possible for more women to work and succeed in IT?
Thankfully, many people are working to make IT more inclusive and diverse. There’s a lot to say on this topic, but I’ll just focus on the issue that affects me most these days – juggling work and family. This of course doesn’t apply to all women, or only to women. But it’s the big one right now for me.
Everything became so much harder with the pandemic. The reason I’m still working is that library leadership at all levels steered us through the chaos by explicitly adopting a compassionate approach based on trust and respect. When we went remote, it was understood that we would all have to find ways to integrate home life with work life, and we were given the flexibility to figure that out.
And to prove my point, I’m working remotely and my kid is home today for a teacher workday. While I’m trying to finish this up, she’s trying to convince me to put on glue-filled socks …
To wrap this up before I have permanently attached footwear — on a large scale, I hope the future keeps bringing systemic changes that reshape the workplace norms originally designed for those without conflicting responsibilities. I hope we can put in place meaningful reforms (such as universal affordable childcare) to support caregivers, especially those who don’t have the financial cushion to ease the burdens of the double shift.
Meanwhile, I hope we continue down this path of flexible working arrangements rooted in good communication and mutual trust. I hope we aim for a culture that values asking questions and learning from mistakes. I hope we talk about the hard parts, how we can help each other through them and organize together to change what needs changing.