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Utah Women In Tech: What Needs to Change

I want to be able to teach my family about the importance of being an active member of society, the community, and the world.

This is the second 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. Find the first article here.

Our first article in this series identified four main issues currently keeping women from joining the ranks of leadership in Utah’s technology sector:

  • Few women already in the tech scene
  • Education
  • A tech-culture targeted to males
  • Utah’s specific culture seems to be keeping many women away from tech careers

So what do we do about it? A group of women leaders currently in the Utah tech industry offer some suggestions.

Problem 1: There are no Utah women in tech because there are no women in Utah tech

A big part of the solution is to let women know that they are necessary and needed in the industry.

“In tech as in any other industry, we need women’s voices and perspectives, in order to create products, environments, and companies that are relevant, diverse, and matter to everyone,” said Hala Saleh, founder of 27Sprints.

More women choosing tech careers will encourage even more women to choose tech careers, making women a stronger force in the technology sector.

“We want more women in tech. In high, executive positions where they can be role models and inspirations. In classrooms so other girls don’t have to feel alone when they walk into a CS, EE, or ME class. In general because if someone knows a smart and successful woman in tech, then they’re more likely to toss away the misconceptions and snarky comments,” said Minna Wang, a partner at Campus Founders Fund.

Wang described the bond women in the industry already feel with each other. “Running into other women at pitch events and conferences seems to create an instant connection simply because of how rare it is,” she said.

Saleh said women can use that bond to encourage each other within the industry. “I think women need to encourage other women to participate, but even before then, we need to learn to identify and give feedback on each other’s strengths and abilities. I have worked with some women who thought they were someone who belongs on the sidelines, but who clearly belong in the middle of the action, and I’ve been excited to see some of those women move into more influential roles within their organizations. I hope to see a lot more of this in the coming few years and would be more than honored to be a part of this change.”

Problem 2: Education

Identifying the stereotypes young girls looking to a career in technology will face and helping them overcome those stereotypes will encourage more and more women to become leaders in the Utah tech scene.

“The stereotype I’ve grappled with the most is the idea that women aren’t ‘natural’ programmers,” said Stacie Farmer, founder of the Salt Lake City chapter of Girl Develop It. “No one is born with the ability to program. These are concepts that are learned throughout a lifetime that men (primarily white men) are more likely to be encouraged in and are given more access to.”

Farmer reflects on the obstacles she faced in her education as a girl wanting to pursue programming. “I definitely wasn’t encouraged to pursue programming. I actually felt discouraged to pursue it because of the boys I knew growing up who acted like only people as ‘smart’ as them could ever learn how to do something as complicated as programming,” she said.

This discouragement is something Farmer still has to deal with in her career today. “Even though I know that programming is a skill which you have to practice in order to learn and become better at it over time, that’s still something I have to constantly remind myself of. We are barraged by the messages in society with this idea that you have to be a ‘natural’ at programming or math and really, only white men who are generally above the poverty level are apt to be ‘naturals’ at it. Seems kind of fishy to me.”

The solution, she suggests, is to recognize biases and work to overcome them. “For the most part, deep down, we all think that men are better at STEM and women are better at nurturing occupations like nursing & education. It doesn’t mean we’re sexist and it doesn’t mean we’re bad people. It just means we’re human and no one is immune to these implicit biases.”

Farmer recommends listening to women already in the tech field in order to overcome implicit biases. “Talk to someone who is likely being harmed by these biases — anyone who is a minority in the tech field is a good place to start. Listen to them, don’t challenge them or try to tell them “that’s not how it really is” or ‘they shouldn’t be angry’. Their experiences and feelings are completely valid.”

Those most likely to help society overcome its biases toward women in technology are school educators, Saleh said. “The first step is to focus on the younger generation. Kids that are in school today, and are learning what society expects of them. To those kids we must say ‘It is your choice to be whatever your passion drives you towards, regardless of your color, belief system, gender, or other factors that make you who you are.’ Then, we need to set examples for them and show them HOW to achieve what they want, instead of telling them why they can’t pursue a certain path.”

ApplicantPro CEO Sara Jones adds that education should also begin in the home. “We need more fathers talking to their daughters about technology careers. It seriously makes a difference. I know a lot of great men in tech and startups. I hope they see a future for their daughters in tech and actually talk to their girls about how tech is a great stepping stone to so many opportunities.”

Problem 3: A Tech Culture Targeted to Males

The solution to this particular problem is in large part to recognize that it is, in fact, a problem.

“First, people need to be made aware that sexism is still an issue, especially in tech. A great deal of what happens is latent and subconscious — bringing it center stage in everyone’s minds makes us more aware of what we’re doing and saying,” said Wang.

While many tech companies are making an effort to include and hire more women, the problem does not end simply at hiring.

“Unfortunately, these ‘token’ hires often lead to your skills and contributions being undervalued and can create animosity on your team since they think you were only hired because you’re a woman,” said Farmer. “It also perpetuates the stereotype that women can’t be successful programmers since they really didn’t ‘earn’ it. Being a token hire can also lead you to question the reasoning behind why you were hired. Are you actually skilled as a developer or did the company just want their IT team to look more diverse?”

Saleh added that the animosity does not come only from men, but from fellow women in the workplace. “To be honest, although there is clearly a male-dominant culture within the tech industry that is propagated by men recruiting men, there also seems to be a challenge that comes directly from women. That challenge is women underestimating their own (and sometimes other women’s) abilities, which leads to a hesitancy to participate, show up, and be a part of the tech scene.”

Saleh suggests that empowering women will give them the confidence necessary to rise in the ranks of tech companies.

“We need to empower people who today do not feel empowered, whether because of gender or other factors. We must start at the individual level, identify people’s strengths, and spend the time and effort to help them understand those strengths. Then we need to help them learn how to apply those strengths with confidence.”

That empowerment begins with company culture. Regina Grogan, a partner at Campus Founders Fund, said, “Companies need to look at evaluating their culture. Right now, there are a few companies that do well in terms of culture, and there are some that do very poorly. 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. Companies need to have greater outreach to foster a more diverse culture.”

Problem 4: Utah Culture

In order to combat the seemingly predominant cultural thought that women should be mothers and not career women, it needs to be shown that the two roles are not mutually exclusive.

“There is one question I hate to be asked: ‘How are you going to be a CEO and a mother?’ No one would ask a dad how he was going to work full-time and be a dad,” said Tammy Bowers, CEO of LionHeart. “I can still be a good mom and run a successful company.”

Jones said that mothers and fathers working together can go a long way in showing children that both men and women are needed for a business to work. “Our boys and girls also need to see parents partnering in the home with home and family care responsibilities so that they understand that life decisions aren’t gender-specific. That both women and men can succeed in careers and in the home. It’s not an either/or proposition. It’s a partnership.”

Sariah Masterson, Program Director/COO Coding Campus, added that a tech career offers a lot of flexibility for women. “The flexibility and the opportunity to work remotely is my favorite. I’m actually working remotely from Texas right now while on vacation — and honestly that’s just the magic of technology period.”

Masterson added that mothers working helps show children what it means to contribute to society. “My desire to work and raise a family doesn’t come from the added help of a second income alone. I want to be able to teach my family about the importance of being an active member of society, the community, and the world. How can I teach that if I’m not doing that myself? If I’m not educating myself on the latest tools and discoveries by working with them? If I’m not building. If I’m not voicing my opinions as a working woman?”

Next in our series: There’s Hope. What’s Already Being Done and How You Can Get Involved

Published 1/13/2015