Montana Tech Leaders Discuss Why So Few Women Aim For Computer Careers

October 18, 2017 Laura Kirkland

Originally posted at billingsgazette.com and missoulian.com, October 14, 2017

June Noel is the chapter director of Chick Tech Missoula, an organization that promotes workplace diversity and equality. Missoulian file photo
June Noel is the chapter director of Chick Tech Missoula, an organization that promotes workplace diversity and equality.
Missoulian file photo

 

At the recent Montana High Tech Jobs Summit in Missoula, there were 26 male speakers and eight female speakers.

Patricia Duce, a lecturer at the University of Montana who teaches computer science, estimates there are about 10 male students for every female student in her classes.

That disparity is representative of a national situation: There are many fewer women in the high-tech industry than men. That means that not only are women missing out on good-paying careers, but businesses are missing out on a source of acquiring top talent.

“I think females have a misconception of what computer science really is,” Duce explained. “They think it’s a lonely career when it’s not. You interact with people. I don’t think they know everything it’s involved with. Technology is part of everything we do, so you can tie it in to whatever your passion is. If you want to solve the world's problems, you can. You can study data and help with climate change, for example.”

In her Careers in Computer Science class, she said there are seven or eight women out of 80 students. She thinks that younger students, in grade school, middle school and high school, need to be exposed to leaders in the technology industry to show them what’s possible.

“We gotta do more at the lower levels,” she said. “There are a lot of job opportunities in Montana. There are two to four times more jobs than students getting degrees in this field. And I’m talking just a four-year degree. And Montana and Missoula (are) becoming more competitive.”

According to the National Center for Woman & Information Technology, only 26 percent of the U.S. computing workforce was comprised of women in 2016, although 57 percent of the professional occupations in the country’s workforce are held by women.

And there isn’t a huge pipeline of women earning degrees that will get them into tech and computer jobs, either. Only 16 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees at major research universities were earned by women in 2015, down from 37 percent in 1985.

Diversity reports published by 11 of the world’s largest tech companies show that only 30 percent of tech workers are women. And a much smaller percentage hold jobs in actual software engineering or executive positions in those companies. Only 5 percent of tech start-ups are owned by women, according to the nonprofit Women Who Tech.

The current figures stand in contrast to the early days of computer technology.

Mathematician Ada Lovelace is widely considered the first computer programmer and added to designs developed by her husband for a machine to quickly complete complex calculations.

That work became a starting point for the first computers built a century later. For decades, women frequently studied mathematics and crunched numbers for a variety of scientific endeavors, from engineering to launching rockets. That translated into jobs as software programmers, although those posts were sometimes seen as less prestigious than the hardware work dominated by men.

Erna Schneider Hoover held multiple patents and worked on anti-ballistic missile defense systems at Bell Laboratories, but is best known for developing the telephone switching system. Jean Jennings Bartik and five other women wrote programs for one of the world’s first all-purpose, all-digital computers. Grace Hopper, a math professor and eventual rear admiral of the U.S. Navy, developed COBOL, the first programming language to use words rather than numbers.

But often those women had to struggle to earn respect for their achievements.

Christina Henderson, the executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance in Missoula, acknowledged numerous stories out of Silicon Valley in recent years about the cultural barriers at some tech companies that block women from advancing or staying. Some companies' actions were unintentional, such as inviting just the boys out for beers, and some created openly hostile work environments, such as not taking seriously repeated sexual harassment complaints against particular male employees.

“It’s absolutely true that culturally, tech as a whole, or particular firms, create environments that are unwelcoming to women,” Henderson said.

Montana has not fallen into the same spotlight for persistent discrimination, but women in tech here say work remains to be done.

Montana’s most famous software company is probably RightNow Technologies. That’s because two-thirds of Montana’s Congressional delegation, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, are former executives at RightNow. The company was founded by Gianforte and his wife in Bozeman, and was sold to Oracle in 2011 for approximately $1.5 billion. Gianforte was the CEO of RightNow when it sold and is a past board chair of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance.

Gianforte recently gave the keynote address at the Jobs Summit at the University of Montana on Oct. 9. He showed the crowd a slideshow of the early days of RightNow that illustrated tech's cultural challenges.

“This was our first Christmas party,” Gianforte said, pointing to a picture. “It’s like, five geeks standing around with a beer. We did hire women, but they knew better than to show up for the Christmas party.”

Henderson said addressing the under representation of women in tech is one of her priorities and one she said Gianforte shared as the Alliance’s board chair.

“It’s sort of disheartening when you see the numbers, but when you look at the efforts to recruit women, I have hope that it will improve,” she said.

 

In Montana, Henderson said women are playing an important role in the tech industry, which pays higher-than-average wages and is growing seven times faster than other industries.

“We have counted in the past that 18 percent of our member companies are founded by women or have women at the top, either leading or co-leading the companies,” she said. “That number is pretty comparable to nationwide numbers in the tech industry.”

Henderson thinks there may be a pipeline problem where fewer girls join middle school coding clubs, take rigorous STEM courses in high school and enroll in computer science programs in college. She noted several “exciting initiatives in Montana,” including outreach programs by Big Sky Coding Academy with a Montana Code Girls program and a Chick Tech chapter in Missoula that offers mentoring.

“Elixiter in Bozeman was named one of the top workplaces for women, and 60 percent of employees are women there,” she said. The company’s president and founder, Andrew Hull, spoke on the first panel at the Summit.

“Many of our tech companies, although they may be led by men, are actively looking for women programmers,” Henderson said.

She said the panel speakers at the Jobs Summit were primarily scheduled by Daines' staff, but she consulted on some.

“We definitely had those conversations,” Henderson said. “Let’s make sure we have a lot of women on the panels and we brainstorm women speakers. One of the panels had two women, which I thought was great.”

Susan Carstensen is the former chief financial officer and chief operating officer at RightNow Technologies. She said when she joined in 1999, the company had about 60 total employees and “quite a few” were women.

“Not as much in the computer science or engineering area, though,” she said. “The lack of candidates is a real problem. I think there’s been a lot of data around that. If you get a diverse workforce, it produces better results. You would have better products with more women in computer science. It’s not that women design things better than men, but you would have an overall more diverse workforce.”

She is seeing positive trends in Montana and believes the state stacks up well with other states as far as getting women involved in tech.

“I could list 10 women in tech in Montana that are all doing interesting things,” she said. “A lot of good things are happening.”

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