In Tech World, Women Look For Mentors

By Chelsea Keenan
The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

IOWA CITY

In 2013, a tweet accusing two men of making a sexist joke during PyCon, a heavily attended programming conference in Santa Clara, Calif., caused waves in the tech industry and ultimately resulted in their firing from gaming ad company PlayHaven.

It also shone a spotlight on a major problem in the male-dominated field of technology.

And that wasn’t an isolated incident. Andrea Flemming, an organizer for Iowa Tech Chicks, told about a man who tweeted how the attractiveness of a female speaker at another tech conference was the reason her seminar was well attended.

“Someone thought that was OK to say,” she recalled. “… There’s definitely a lot of that (sexism).”

Part of the problem: While women held 57 percent of professional occupations in 2013, they only claimed 26 percent of computing jobs, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

And data released in August by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names showed that women make up only about 30 percent of the work force at Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter.

That’s why it’s so important to improve the numbers and get more young girls interested in computer professions, Flemming said.
“In any field, seeing examples of someone like you makes it seem more possible for you,” she said.

Mentors also are able to help young girls get a better idea of everything the tech industry encompasses, from design work to jobs in finance and architecture, she said.

“It’s not all just coding in dark rooms,” she added.

SUPPLYING MENTORS

But providing those mentors sometimes can be a challenge.

Flemming also helps coordinate the Dev/Iowa Bootcamp — a nine-week web development course at the University of Iowa’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.

She said that while about one-third of the program’s participants are female, the number of the program’s instructors and mentors skews heavily male. Only three of the 16 mentors were female, and the three instructors were all male.

This is problematic because women may feel more comfortable going to another woman about a certain problem or for help, Flemming said.

Iowa Tech Chicks, a group that connects women working in and interested in learning about technology, helps fill in some of these gaps. The organization holds educational events and workshops as well as networking events.

It also is preparing for its second-annual Girls Tech Career Day, targeted toward girls in fifth to eighth grade. The event, set for Nov. 12 at Kirkwood Community College, will give girls a chance to visit area businesses, including the Coralville CoLab and start-up Connect Five, as well as hear presentations from women in the tech industry and take apart a computer.

Fifteen girls attended last year’s event, which featured speakers from Rockwell Collins, Procter & Gamble and ACT.

Flemming said it’s important to reach girls when they are young because girls’ interest in math and science drops off as early as fourth or fifth grade.

Breahna Beecher, who designs and develops apps and took part in last year’s event, said she enjoyed seeing the shift in the girls’ attitudes, from self-doubt and hesitance when they first found out they’d be taking dismantling a computer, to excitement when they realized it was something they could do easily.

“Girls really have an I-can-do-it-too attitude,” she said.

It’s something she also sees in women learning to code. Beecher just finished teaching a weeklong HTML and CSS class for Dev/Iowa. She said when the women first came in, they were nervous and apologetic for being unfamiliar with code.

But by the end of the week, they were more confident and ready to put the final touches on their websites.

STATEWIDE FOCUS

Iowa also has taken an interest in correcting this challenge.

On Oct. 24, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds announced a public-private initiative aimed at recruiting thousands of mentors for young girls and women who are interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM fields.

Million Women Mentors-Iowa wants to enlist 5,000 female and male mentors from all 99 counties over the next four years. The state already has received the promise of help from the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (IABI) President Mike Ralston and Bankers Trust Vice President of Sales and Marketing Jana Rieker.

The state named Ralston and Rieker as co-chairs of the Million Women Mentors-Iowa initiative and appointed another 12 individuals to the executive council.

Thirteen companies already have pledged more than 1,200 mentors, including Hy-Vee Inc., Bankers Trust, EMC, the IABI, Meredith Corp., Principal Corp., Pella Corp. and Vermeer Manufacturing.

Several of Iowa’s colleges and universities, including Des Moines Area Community College, Drake University, Iowa State University, University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa, also have volunteered mentors and resources.

No Corridor companies have signed on yet, but Rieker said the group expects more businesses to pledge mentors over the next two months.

According to Million Women Mentors, only 12 out of every 100 female college students will graduate with a STEM major. Of those 12, only three will continue to work in a STEM field 10 years after graduation.

Women with STEM jobs make 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs, and the wage gap between men and women in STEM fields is smaller than other occupations.

“In particular, I believe mentors can guide, encourage, and open doors for girls and young women to be fully equipped for the great jobs of tomorrow in STEM-related careers,” Reynolds said.

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