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Geek gals: Can the Twin Cities lead in helping women take their place in high tech?

Kate Agnew, managing director of the local chapter of Girls in Tech
Photo by Bill Kelley
Kate Agnew, managing director of the local chapter of Girls in Tech
The Line

As Minnesota builds its technology sector and continues its path to becoming Silicon Prairie, one issue seems to stand out: There are still mostly men in all those software development seats.

Women hold a place at many companies and associations — most notably, Margaret Anderson Kelliher helms the Minnesota High Tech Association (MHTA) — but when it comes to sheer numbers, the gender imbalance can be stark.

"We've really tried to hire more women as software engineers, but we have a hard time finding them and bringing them in," says Shivani Khanna, a software development manager at St. Cloud-based W3i. "Unfortunately, in the seven years I've been here, there hasn't been much change, despite many efforts."

But, she adds, signs of a shift are beginning to show, at least somewhat. Through mentoring opportunities, more women-focused organizations, and even informal happy hours, there's optimism that the technology sector can be more appealing as a career choice to women.

Sticking points

Trying to pin down the reasons for low numbers of women in technology is somewhat akin to looking at the issue of obesity in the United States. Opportunities abound for change, and many people are eager for wide-scale transformation, and yet the numbers remain stubbornly fixed. There are many theories as to why the situation exists, but also frustration over the lack of clear answers.

For some, there's a belief that enterprises, however well meaning, continue to foster the belief that men and women solve problems differently, and that the male-based approach is more advantageous for technology development. That pervasive opinion can make women feel intimidated, Khanna believes.

"When I was going to college to get my master's, I felt like people were thinking, 'What is a girl doing in our space?'" she says. "I don't know if that was actually the case, but I definitely felt like I had to constantly prove myself in a way that the men didn't. For many women, I can see how that would cause them to drop out, especially if that mindset continues throughout your career."

Often, women don't have as much credibility when they're on technology teams, adds Kate Agnew, managing director of the Twin Cities chapter of Girls in Tech, an organization working to bring more girls and women into technology.

That lack of clout can lead women to feel unaccepted, and eventually leave the field. That has a ripple effect, because it means fewer women are in the profession, and girls considering technology as a career might opt for a field with more gender balance.

Local efforts

Despite the stacked deck for women in technology, there are significant efforts being made for change, and the Twin Cities is particularly committed to the issue. Numerous initiatives are giving hope that the future might be different here, if we can get some much-needed traction.

Recently, technology group Advance IT Minnesota unveiled a new award for girls in grades 9 through 12. The Minnesota Aspirations for Women in Computing Award is designed to encourage girls to consider technology career options, which could then lead to a more diverse talent pool here in the long run.

Another bright spot has been Girls in Tech, started two years ago. Agnew notes that there's been substantial growth in the organization, and as outreach efforts grow, so do the membership numbers. The group plans to focus more strongly on mentorship connections for girls as well as women already in technology careers. Agnew and others involved in Girls in Tech also visit local high schools to talk about why technology is cool and interesting.

"Even after all these years, there are still so few women in technology," she says. "It's going to take a major effort to change that, and we're putting in the hard work to make it happen."

Conferences are proving helpful as well. The Twin Cities recently hosted its third round of She's Geeky, an "unconference" where women shared thoughts about science and technology. Organized by local tech leaders Jacque Urick and Liz Tupper, the event continues to increase in attendance every year.

Jacque Urich, co-organizer of She's Geeky, at the CoCo coworking space
Photo by Bill Kelley
Jacque Urich, co-organizer of She's Geeky, at the CoCo coworking space

"We have a ways to go yet, but it felt like people are talking more, getting more involved, asking questions about why women-led companies aren't getting funded as much as they should," says Urick.

More conversation is likely to happen this year when the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference is held in Minneapolis, says Kelliher: "This is a major national conference, and it's exciting that they've chosen Minneapolis for this year. I think it'll highlight what we've been building here in terms of a technology field."

In addition to initiatives and conferences like these, the state is also seeing more women technology entrepreneurs. Although the evidence of that is anecdotal, it's tough to ignore the impact of business-boosting efforts like WomenVenture, and the creation of women-led startups like HappiMatchPreciouStatus (which won this year's Minnesota Cup), AppmosphereCode Poetry Software, and others.

Equal balance

As efforts like Girls in Tech and Advance IT find their footing, there's optimism that Minnesota can become a leader in changing the landscape when it comes to women in technology professions.

"At this point, I think a lot of things are moving in the right direction," says Urick. "Last year, it felt like people were looking at the issues more, and that's a good first step."  

In other words, the Twin Cities may finally be seeing the beginning of the end of gender imbalance in technology. Although it's taken an enormous amount of effort just to get this level of change started, the momentum will be worth watching.

"The opportunities in technology for women are enormous here," says Kelliher. "We're excited about the number of efforts that are going on to create change."

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Elizabeth Millard is the innovation and jobs editor of The Line.

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