Tech has a woman problem. At the annual Consumer Electronics Show this week, “booth babes” are still in action, despite an effort to change the practice of hiring scantily clad women to tout the latest gadgets. At a hackathon sponsored by TechCrunch in September, the first presentation was from a pair of male developers introducing a tastelessly named app that allowed men to share photos of themselves ogling women. And it’s not just sexist jokes: Last year, several female software engineers reported that they had been sexually assaulted at tech conferences.
The underlying statistics on women in tech are bleak, too. The percentage of female computer science graduates has fallen since the mid-’80s, from 37 percent to 14 percent. A whopping 89 percent of startups’ founding teams are all-male. Just 3 percent of venture capitalists — the folks funding many of those startups — are women. So it’s no wonder that, according to the Social Science Research Council, women in Silicon Valley make 49 cents to the male dollar. Snapchat’s male founders got a fair amount of attention last fall when they rejected a $3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook. Meanwhile, the impending IPOs of female-founded startups like Care.com and Gilt have garnered far less buzz. When it comes to notable women in tech, the same two names come up over and over again: Marissa Mayer. Sheryl Sandberg. Most people outside the industry would struggle to identify a third.
But what if part of tech’s woman problem is our obsession with the problem? It’s important to point out gender disparities, but repeated laments about the dearth of women in the industry tend to reinforce the belief that there are no women, rendering invisible the women who are doing this work. “The numbers are low, but they’re not zero,” says Natalia Oberti Noguera, founder and chief executive of the Pipeline Fellowship, a program that trains women to become startup investors. “As much as we need to increase diversity, we need to increase visibility of current diversity.” The tech industry may have a problem with women, but women don’t have a problem with technology.
While it’s true that women in technology find themselves outnumbered and often marginalized, they’ve responded by becoming highly organized. Mayer and Sandberg may get most of the attention, but there’s a huge network of women in tech, and they’re working together to transform the industry — and each other’s careers.
There’s Women in Tech, a group that gathers regularly in Los Angeles, and Lesbians Who Tech, a Bay Area meetup that’s recently held events in New York and Chicago. There are Tech LadyMafia and XX in Tech, two thriving lists (founded by women in the District and New York) where women trade job opportunities, offer support, and ask for advice. Efforts such as Girls Who Code, Skillcrush and Black Girls Code, as well as Oberti Noguera’s Pipeline Fellowship, aim to equip women with the hard skills and knowledge they need to change the less-than-promising statistics.
There are women in tech. And they’re helping each other advance in an industry where most of the major players don’t look like they do.
Last year Sabrina Hersi Issa was at a political tech conference in New York and found herself in a familiar position. She looked around her, saw a lot of white men, and wondered, Where are the women of color? Afterward, she was sitting in the main hall waiting for the next set of speakers to begin when a young African woman approached and introduced herself. The woman had seen Hersi Issa speak at a different conference a few weeks prior and wanted to share how much it meant to her to hear an expert who was a woman. The two struck up a conversation and were soon joined by a South Asian woman who was volunteering at the event. Previously complete strangers, they connected based on the fact that they had all felt like the “only ones” at the conference.
“When I look around the room and don’t see people who look or sound like me, I seek them out,” says Hersi Issa, a Washington-based media entrepreneur and technologist. “With women and people of color, there’s always this community-building backchannel that’s happening at conferences, summits and hackathons.”
Among women working in technology, several such informal networks and more organized communities have emerged — many of them, notably, outside the confines of Silicon Valley. Oberti Noguera thinks this is because cities where startup culture is less dominant are friendlier environments for women entrepreneurs. Others guess that there’s simply a stronger networking culture in cities like Washington and New York. “Being from San Francisco for the last 10 years, I find the East Coast is just more networked,” says Leanne Pittsford, founder of Lesbians Who Tech, who recently started splitting her time between the Bay Area and New York. She joined the Tech LadyMafia e-mail group after hearing about it from East Coast contacts. As far as she knows, no similar list exists on the West Coast.
Washington is also attractive for women in tech because of its proximity to government and nonprofit groups. Many tech entrepreneurs like to say they got into the business to change the world. For a large number of women in the industry, this is the No. 1 goal, above making money — and Washington is an ideal city to marry a love of technology with a desire to do good.
That’s how Dahna Goldstein sees it. She’s the founder of PhilanTech in Washington, a company that aims to streamline the grant-making process. She says she thinks about a career in technology not solely in terms of chasing the buzziest app or newest technological development, but “from a social change perspective.”
Focusing on policy and politics usually doesn’t lead to big IPOs or create huge paydays, though, which means less media attention. But it can grant entrepreneurs a different kind of world-changing power than is often touted by West Coast startups.
This is something Anthea Watson Strong, who works on data and technology for Google’s civics team in Washington, has seen again and again in tech women’s networks. “It’s crazy how much social-good stuff is a part of that community,” she says of the Tech LadyMafia group.
“I didn’t actually identify as someone who’s a technical person for a long time because I didn’t have the [computer science] degree or the title ‘engineer’,” Watson Strong says. “It wasn’t until I joined this community of women that I realized, oh, you don’t have to have that piece of paper. You can claim that mantle.”
Tech companies are starting to take notice and care about remedying the gender gap. “Certainly women’s networks, if they’re supported from the top and aren’t just people coming together to whine about what’s wrong, can make a huge difference,” says Telle Whitney, president of the Anita Borg Institute, an organization that seeks to increase the impact of women in technology. The stereotype that women who point out sexism are merely “whining” is one that groups like Whitney’s have long had to combat, even among other women. She has met many female software developers who were the lone women on teams of men, yet insisted gender didn’t matter. Now, Whitney sees broader changes afoot. “Many companies won’t report numbers, but anecdotally I do see an influx of great women to the tech industry,” she says. “We’re receiving interest from venture firms for the first time.”
Even signaling to women that their pitches are welcome might make a difference. One study found that even though gender-diverse groups of angel investors were neither more nor less likely to invest in women entrepreneurs, women were more likely to pitch them — almost as if the mere knowledge that another woman would be in the room emboldened them to ask for another round of funding.
Networking, long a career-climbing buzzword, is actually critical to female technologists’ success. “When I feel less alone, it forces me to be braver and take more risks,” says Hersi Issa. “That thing you fear, being left out on a limb alone, that feeling that keeps people from testing themselves and pushing themselves. And you feel that less when you’re part of a community.”
At the conference in New York that day, Hersi Issa’s informal post-panel conversation eventually grew to include five or six young women of color. “I realized I was deeply enjoying our conversation probably more than whatever was going on in the official program,” she says. So they all left to have lunch together.
“I’m still connected to three of those young women today, have supported their projects on Kickstarter, made job recommendations, given career advice,” Hersi Issa says, “and they continue to show up and support me as well.” They no longer feel like only ones in the room.
Ann Friedman, a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, contributes regularly to New York magazine’s Web site and the Columbia Journalism Review.
This article has been updated to reflect a clarification on the Pipeline Fellowship.