By Mark Emmons
San Jose Mercury News.
The day’s schedule at the all-woman conference began with a fun ice-breaker. Participants were invited to stand and complete the sentence: “I am geeky because …”
The answers fit a general theme. Attendees said they love technology. They’re curious about how things operate. They want to change the world.
They were the exact kind of things men involved in tech probably would say. But the stark reality is that women remain vastly underrepresented in the Silicon Valley workforce. And changing that dynamic is the reason for the She’s Geeky conference, a three-day event at eBay’s Town Hall that concludes Sunday. Women in the fields of STEM — science, technology, engineering, math — are coming together to network, talk about their career passions and offer each other support in their male-dominated sectors.
“We all have to do something to change the game and putting on these conferences is a small piece to that puzzle,” said Kaliya Young, founder of She’s Geeky.
More than 230 people signed up for this conference — the 17th held around the country since 2007. And it’s not just for women. Many brought their STEM-interested daughters on Saturday.
“I think She’s Geeky normalizes tech for girls and women of all ages,” said CB Smith-Dahl, a videographer and website builder who attends the conferences with her 12-year-old twin daughters. “Being a geek is the norm here. You’re not the outlier anymore. You’re in the mainstream, and that’s an interesting feeling for a woman.”
This event was especially timely. The long-running local discussion about why there are not more women in — and running — tech companies has gone national again with a story in the latest issue of Newsweek magazine.
The article, titled “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women,” broke little new ground. But the provocative cover is polarizing. It features a cartoon caricature of a shapely woman in red high heels and a cursor suggestively raising the back of her short, red dress. Social media has been abuzz with commentators both deploring the depiction as sexist as well as applauding it for capturing the valley’s rampant sexism.
“The cover is shocking,” said Young, an Oakland resident who also is the CEO of a startup called The Leola Group. “But it reflects how shockingly bad the situation is in tech. … I have said that the tech industry is like where the law and medicine industries were in the ’50s and ’60s. A lot of acting out that happens is done by young men, but the older male leadership doesn’t stop it.”
The dearth of women in tech is especially a conundrum because studies have shown that girls outperform boys in math and science. A recently released study by researchers at the University of Missouri and Scotland’s University of Glasgow found that girls bested their boy counterparts in 70 percent of the countries they studied, using the educational levels of 1.5 million 15-year-olds around the world over a 10-year period.
Removing barriers for girls to enter STEM fields is important to Punam Nagpal, a technical leader at Cisco. She attended Saturday’s session with her 14-year-old daughter, Shivali Soin.
“She sometimes thinks she cannot do it,” Nagpal said of her daughter. “But I tell her, ‘Believe in yourself. Your mother is doing it. You can, too.’ We all need to take pride in the fact that we are geeky. So what? That’s our strength.”
The events run by She’s Geeky actually are “un-conferences.” Organizers use a free-form model in which attendees spend the first hour each day deciding what topics they want to discuss before breaking down into smaller groups delving into subjects like how to take charge of your career and tips on launching bootstrap startups.
But the most important part of the conference simply is encountering like-minded women.
“I’ve been in technology for 18 years, and I’ve always been the only woman wherever I’ve been,” said Sharon Yencharis, now a senior project manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Mel Condos was so impressed by the three earlier conferences that she persuaded her company to help sponsor this event.
“Oftentimes, women feel uncomfortable asking for the more challenging and interesting project,” said Condos, a recruiting manger at Syapse, a healthcare technology company. “Then you walk into a room like this, and feel completely empowered. You have women shaking you by the shoulders saying, ‘Stop that. We’re better than thinking like that.’ ”
Young said it’s a mistake to paint all of Silicon Valley with a broad brush of institutional sexism. Some companies, she said, are great workplaces for women.
“But if you love tech and have a bad situation, where do you go to find a good place?” she asked. “You come here.”
For more information about She’s Geeky, visit www.shesgeeky.org.