4 Chicago tech leaders addressing the biggest issues women face in the industry

March 22, 2017

The number of issues women working in the tech industry face is staggering. From unequal pay and uneven hiring to serious cases of harassment and discrimination and more — like Susan Fowler's recent revelations about working at Uber — there is a lot of work still to be done.

Many entities in Chicago have taken these issues to heart. Individual employees, tech organizations and the community at large have identified a host of matters at hand, helping fuel productive dialogues and build practices that aim to right the problems uniquely faced by women in tech.

As a result, a wave of cultural work has come over Chicago's tech community, from internal company policies to external programs that build communities and get women into the industry. The goal with initiatives like these is to build momentum toward a more inclusive, productive industry — and we wanted to learn more. We caught up with four women for their insights on the roadblocks they face, and the work they're doing to demolish them. 

 

 

Answers from ThoughtWorks' Head of Diversity and Inclusion Tarsha McCormick. The creative technology consultancy helps tech companies build new products with an expertise in Agile, UX, devops and lean development.

What are the biggest issues facing women in the tech industry today?

Women are underrepresented in tech, often working against deeply entrenched stereotypes and within cultures that are not supportive of all technologists. Energy is wasted when women in technology have to defend their seat at the table instead of focusing on building their careers and following their passions. This contributes to a lack of women in leadership positions; without female mentors for younger technologists, the cycle is often perpetuated. These issues sit alongside other commonly-cited problems for women in tech such as the pay gap and lack of supportive paid leave policies.

How is your company addressing these issues?

Over six years ago, ThoughtWorks decided it was time to change the gender landscape of our organization by focusing more time and attention on how we recruit, retain, support and grow our female talent within our North America organization. Bold decisions coupled with innovative programs and initiatives are what led to us being named the winner of the 2016 Top Companies For Women Technologist Program by the Anita Borg Institute.

Some of our programs, practices and initiatives include: Casting a wider net and looking for talent outside of the computer science department; designating 50 percent of the North America Leadership Development Program slots for women; and creating ThoughtWorks University, a two-year entry level program for recent college graduates or anyone with less than two years of work experience who is interested in a career in technology. ThoughtWorks boldly set a goal of hiring 50 percent women for this program, and we have met or exceeded that goal with every new, incoming class because we cast a wider net in order to find more diverse talent. Women and other underrepresented minorities who joined the company through ThoughtWorks University have since gone on to become leaders of our business.

How is the industry as a whole changing to solve these issues? Or what could it be doing to help solve them?

There is a great deal of attention to the imbalance right now, which is a good thing. The first step is talking about the problem and acknowledging it. However, talk needs to be accompanied by action. All tech organizations need to be asking of themselves: how can we create real, meaningful change to make tech a safe space for women and other underrepresented groups in tech? Usually, it comes down to culture. It needs to be safe to ask questions and challenge entrenched stereotypes. And most importantly, none of these efforts can be a one-time initiative — organizations need to evolve so that there is an honest, ongoing conversation with their employees in the interests of creating an inclusive and positive culture.

 

 

 

Answers from Ariel Diamond, an associate software engineer at Jellyvision. The company’s software leans on a healthy mix of humor and behavioral science to help users make sense of important but potentially tedious decisions like health insurance or retirement savings.  

What are the biggest issues facing women in the tech industry today?

Women have made great strides in the tech industry, but the biggest gap is the lack of women in technical leadership roles. Numerous studies, as well as the plot of “9 to 5,” have demonstrated the benefit of leadership by women, but most tech companies have few, if any, women in high-level or management roles. Until more women are in positions that have the power to affect real change, I believe that we can expect the tech industry to evolve very slowly.

How is your company addressing these issues?

Jellyvision is truly committed to solving these problems, but we still have a ways to go. I have never worked with so many genuine allies, who take our concerns and needs seriously, and who welcome new perspectives and the change we bring.

That being said, our engineering department is 28 percent female — which feels like a lot, and is high for the industry, but would need to nearly double if we are to reach the gender parity we have met as a whole company. In technical leadership, Jellyvision struggles like the rest of the industry: a year ago, our engineering management team was 100 percent cis-male and white. There is a drive to diversify in management, and it is starting, but change is slow. I am proud to be involved with a new initiative, Jellyvision Women in Tech, which is dedicated to promoting diversity within the tech community and supporting those of all backgrounds in navigating their careers in tech.

How is the industry as a whole changing to solve these issues? Or what could it be doing to help solve them?

In Chicago, there are starting to be enough women in tech that there is now a powerful and supportive community here. I have found this community to be extraordinarily generous, inclusive and collaborative. This support and knowledge-sharing is helping individuals gradually change companies, and eventually, these changes will become more industry-wide.

With new and different people entering and rising in the industry, some things will change, and some will resist this change. As we have seen in recent headlines, a multitude of sins can be excused by calling an unsafe or discriminatory workplace its “culture.” In order to chip away at this, we need allies who are men and leaders who are women willing to make tough decisions to make workplace culture healthy and welcoming for everyone.

 


 

 

Answers from Terri Shih, a data analyst at Braintree. The payments processing company’s product is integrated into shopping systems around the internet to reduce payment friction and manage risk while providing account management tools for sellers to manage their money.

What are the biggest issues facing women in the tech industry today?

Women in tech face challenges in each part of our careers, from hiring and onboarding to promotion and long-term retention. We are particularly underrepresented in leadership positions (especially women of color, trans and queer women, and mothers), which can result in a shortage of role models and mentors, and creates companies that are unrepresentative of the communities they serve.

Additionally, women are often expected, regardless of title, to take on the emotional labor of administrative tasks such as note taking or planning team events as supplemental work, which is simultaneously overlooked and reduces the energy we have for our core jobs. We face barriers when we speak up, such as our concerns being downplayed or not believed, or we remain silent for fear of backlash. Bias, both internal and external, underlies these issues and becomes reinforced in practices such as hiring based on "culture fit" or viewing the same qualities as positive in men and negative in women.

How is your company addressing these issues?

At Braintree, we have prioritized diversity and inclusion as a core business initiative, with a dedicated budget, leadership approval and time for updates at company-wide meetings. We have centered our efforts and created sub-committees with a dedicated team in charge of planning and executing ideas.

Through these committees, we have partnered with organizations that support underrepresented groups, advocated for gender neutral restrooms and trainings on topics such as race/gender/bias, hosted cultural celebrations and family events, created ways for people to meet new folks, and more. Employee feedback has been central to this, and we are upfront that while mistakes are inevitable, we would rather be iterating/improving than remaining idle.

How is the industry as a whole changing to solve these issues? Or what could it be doing to help solve them?

Positive changes include encouraging young women and minorities to get into STEM, conducting bias/privilege training, recruiting from organizations that support underrepresented communities, providing opportunities for non-CS majors and advocating for equality in pay and benefits — such as reducing gender- and race-driven pay gaps and supporting mothers re-entering the workforce. Given the complexity and importance of this issue, companies should consider hiring full-time employees who lead these initiatives.

We likewise must support employees who are involved in this work by building it into their job descriptions, goals, reviews and compensation and setting clear expectations with managers that this is a priority of equal importance to other company goals. Leadership and those from privileged backgrounds should promote and partake in trainings about the communities their employees are a part of and provide a forum for underrepresented employees to share their stories and feedback. We can also show our equal commitment to all employees through ensuring our benefits and resources support parents, are trans-inclusive, and provide for part-time and non-salaried employees.

 

 

 

Answers from Michaela Neatherton, the director of marketing at 5thColumn. The boutique cybersecurity firm serves companies in both the public and private sector. Its specialties include managed services, security assessments, and risk and compliance.

What are the biggest issues facing women in the tech industry today?

Women in tech are up against a lot. Tech companies here are predominately male and most (from what I’ve seen) tend to have this old-school mentality. Every woman I know in the industry (not just here, anywhere) has dealt with “that coworker” that speaks down to them, is disrespectful, comments on their appearance and so on.

I’ve had a former superior email me at 11 p.m. telling me that I’m smarter than I look, another told me I would close more deals if I wore more makeup, and another told me it was okay if I wanted to go to the gym during the day and come back without doing my hair — as if I needed his permission. The list goes on. We’ve all dealt with it or are currently dealing with it, even if it’s not discussed. Women have to work twice as hard as men to prove ourselves at the same job while earning less, we have to stand up for ourselves in a professional manner that won’t offend anyone (which is very difficult), and we can’t show that any of this gets to us.

How is your company addressing these issues?

When I was hired at 5thColumn, I was the only female employee. Our CEO tasked me with making sure we have an environment and culture that women are comfortable in and we’re doing a great job. We have a very relaxed, comfortable culture here. No matter your title, gender or race, every employee at 5thColumn is treated with the same amount of respect that we treat our CEO. If they feel otherwise, we empower them to address the matter without fear of backlash or repercussion. We have an open-door policy to discuss any concerns that may arise and a zero-tolerance policy for any type of disrespect.

How is the industry as a whole changing to solve these issues? Or what could it be doing to help solve them?

Last year, it felt like the tech industry as a whole was really moving forward. You were hearing about more female executives getting hired, women were speaking out and taking a stand against their male counterparts, equal wages and paid leave were major topics during the election, and more women were applying for developer and engineer positions. But so much has happened in the last several months. The fire behind equal pay and paid leave seems to have died out, sexual harassment isn’t going away, and sexism is being normalized. It’s happening and denial isn’t doing anyone any good. The tech industry needs to acknowledge that these problems are real issues and step up to change them. Make sure we’re paid fairly, train your staff to treat women as equals, don’t make maternity leave a punishment. Tech needs women and we’re not going anywhere.

 

 

Images via featured companies. Responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

What do you think are the biggest issues facing women in tech? Let us know with a tip or a tweet @BuiltInChicago

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