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Utah Women in Tech: Let’s Start With the Problem

There just are not that many women in the Utah startup tech scene.

This is the first in a series of articles Beehive Startups will be publishing on what it’s like to be a woman working in Utah’s technology sector.

In 2014, Forbes ranked Utah the best state for business, citing Utah’s roots in the tech industry. Meanwhile, a Wallstreet 24/7 study ranked Utah as the worst place for women. The study states, “less than 31% of management positions were held by women in Utah.”

While it’s true that there are certain nuances to the Utah workforce that the study may have overlooked — like the number of women working part time and the effect that has on salary comparison between genders — the indisputable fact remains that there are very few women in Utah running tech startups, the fastest growing sector in the state.

“I’ve spent 15-plus years in tech,” ApplicantPro CEO Sara Dansie Jones said in an interview with Beehive Startups. “The number of women in tech still aren’t great, and I think it’s easy to feel like you are alone when you are the only woman in the room.”

BoomStartup’s Program Manager, Jessica Haggett, expressed a similar sentiment.

“There just are not that many women in the Utah startup tech scene,” said Haggett. “You’d be surprised at some of these startup-tech events that I go to. It’s not rare for me to be the only woman in attendance.”

So what is keeping Utah women from joining the ranks of tech leadership? There seems to be a few things.

There Are No Utah Women in Tech Because There Are No Women in Utah Tech

“I think the biggest challenge in Utah specifically is not enough women in the highest levels of organizations,” said Jones. “Plenty of tech companies in Utah have high percentages of women mid-level management and below, but it’s not reflected in their executive teams. So there’s a career pathway issue that hasn’t been solved yet.”

This career pathway issue makes tech a seemingly risky choice for any woman looking at her career options.

“I think it’s human nature to fill executive roles with people in whom we have a high level of trust,” said Jones. “We naturally look to our network to find those people. So if women aren’t part of these networks, they won’t be considered in the first place for these types of roles.”

A shortage of women at the executive level of tech startups means a shortage of available mentors for women hoping to get a start in the field.

Sariah Masterson, Program Director and COO of Coding Campus said, “It’s hard enough being new and young in your field — even harder when you factor in that you’re one of the only women presenting at OpenWest.”

Masterson added that being in the minority brings an added level of self-consciousness to her work.

“Stereotypes do get to me sometimes — especially struggling with being myself and being respected,” she said. “Am I being too ‘strong?’ Should I act more feminine? Do I really need to put on a dress suit to attend that meeting? Is my confidence coming across as ‘bitchy?’ Am I sharing my opinions enough? Women are always portrayed as either a hard-ass or a softie in the business world. There is rarely an in-between and unfortunately that socialization has affected me.”

Education

Young girls in our school system are rarely encouraged to seek careers in STEM related fields.

“I don’t think enough girls believe that they can have a career, let alone a career in technology,” said Jones. “Too many girls that I have met still think that the only viable careers are being a mother, nurse, or teacher. Go spend time in our middle schools and you will find this is unfortunately very much the case, even though 60 percent of these 21st century girls should be hearing about a lot more career options.”

What many young women seemingly fail to learn is that a career in technology provides more flexibility than many of the more traditional jobs held by women.

“Tech careers are very skills-based. So whenever you have a high-skills role, the demand for those types of roles is higher. Often those roles also can be project-based, so you have scheduling flexibility,” said Jones. “I’ve found the more educated and specialized skills you have, the more you have the power to ask for flexibility because your skills are in demand.”

Masterson explained that with a tech career, she can work when she has time to, and is not tied to office hours or location.

“I can work in the mornings while my kids sleep. I can work while my kids are in school and leave when it’s time to pick them up. My employer is happy because he can still contact me at anytime and monitor my work based on what I submit that’s completed. We need girls to know that we can and do play a part in industry and society,” Masterson said.

A Tech Culture Targeted to Males

“In some of these startups and technology companies, there is a culture that is targeted toward males, leaving some women excluded from networking,” said Regina Grogan, a student investor for Campus Founders Fund.

Masterson added, “There [has been] the occasion where I feel like conversations and attentions are directed to my male counterparts rather than myself.”

The problem does not just end with a shortage of networking opportunities or subtleties in communication. Sometimes women in tech are faced with startling sexism.

“Like everyone else in research, I go to trade shows,” said Grogan. “One of the biggest trade shows in particular is CES, and as I am walking around these shows, I feel uncomfortable because the technology industry still uses ‘booth babes’, women who are scantily clad to advertise their technology products. Who do you think these ‘booth babes’ are targeting? It feels very male-centric.

“I think that women have a distinct disadvantage and there is less credibility associated with being a young woman. Male entrepreneurs get six times the funding that female entrepreneurs get, controlling for multiple variables. The funding community is distinctly homogenous. Subconsciously, people have a desire to fund people who are like them, and because there are few women in the funding community, there are even fewer getting ideas funded.

“The hardest thing is being one of the first few women, because those women face the road block of a culture that was made for men by men.”

Utah Culture

It’s no secret that Utah women, for one cultural reason or another, are slower to willingly join the workforce for fear of abandoning their family responsibilities.

“In Utah, there is culturally a very traditional sense of women’s roles,” said Grogan. “If Utah could find a way to have a more progressive culture towards women in the workplace, that would foster an environment where women would be more comfortable. However, cultural norms are slow to change.”

These cultural norms are not just slow to change among men in the workplace, but among women as well.

“Some women see me as biding my time until I’m ‘ready’ to have kids,” said Masterson. “I’ve had a woman tell me how much I’ll appreciate what I learn in business and how I’ll be able to share that with my children — which I wholeheartedly plan on doing and can’t wait to teach my future family about — but sometimes comments like this make me feel like they believe that I can’t be a business woman and a mom at the same time. People do it outside of Utah. Why not inside?”

A big answer to the “why not” may be the predominant Utah culture that seems to discourage women from working outside the home.

“I’d say the answer is LDS culture. Not LDS religion mind you, but the culture. To even be more specific — Utah LDS culture,” said Masterson.

Masterson is quick to clarify that not every member of the LDS church believes that women should stay away from the workplace, but instead it appears to be a peculiar Utah Mormon cultural quirk.

“I’m a member of the LDS church and I grew up on the west coast. Women in Seattle and Sacramento work. They have families, they support their husbands as leaders of their families and they do things. Women in Utah do this too, but these brave souls do so under the pressures of a society that teaches my primary kids that while going to college is important — Jenny is probably not really going to need or use her education.”

Published 1/5/2015