By Christina Henderson
As a female programmer in Montana, Lindsey Hanna is used to being in the minority. While earning her bachelor’s degree in Computer Science at Montana State University (class of 2012) and during her six years as a Software Engineer at Workiva, only around 10 percent of her colleagues have been women.
“When I started working [at Workiva] there were 35 people in the Bozeman office and I think 30 of them were male,” Hanna said. “And that’s just a more intimidating environment to work in.”
Compounding the gender imbalance was the fact that many of Hanna’s colleagues didn’t realize it was a issue.
“There might be only one girl on a team of 23, but people will say, ‘It’s a good thing we don’t have a diversity problem,” Hanna said.
Two years ago, things started to change.
Workiva sent four women to the Grace Hopper Conference, an event for women in computing that attracts 15,000 people – 14,000 of them women – sparking a big push to improve gender balance in software engineering.
“There was buy-in immediately at the executive level,” Hanna said.
According to Hanna’s boss, Jeff Trom, CTO and co-founder of Workiva and board chair of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, diverse engineering teams aren’t just more comfortable for women, they make better products.
“That’s been proven over and over again,” Trom said. “It hurts our bottom line not to have diverse teams. We have made a commitment to make it happen. But it’s tough.”
Initiatives at Workiva included forming an affinity group for women with an active chat room, implementing hiring practices to avoid scaring away diverse candidates, and sponsoring the Women in Engineering dinner at MSU. Workiva also released the gender breakdown of its workforce internally, which prompted people to recognize this was a situation at a company level.
“The main thing we have done is start talking about it,” Hanna said. “That’s an important first step.”
Workiva is one of many member companies in the Montana High Tech Business Alliance addressing the lack of women in technical roles in our workforce. Top managers from across the state met at Foundant Technologies in Bozeman in February to share the challenges they have faced, and the steps they have taken to fix the problems.
Here are four takeaways from the discussion:
1. Recognize which roles and departments attract fewer women, and proactively seek diversity.
At Applied Materials, General Manager Rick Plavidal has noticed that women are distributed unevenly in different fields of engineering.
“Here in Kalispell, there’s a high percentage of women who are outstanding process engineers,” Plavidal said. “In the Field Operations group, not one woman. Mechanical Engineering, not one woman. There’s quite a difference in the jobs women go into versus not go into.”
Similarly at Workiva, areas like Customer Success and User Experience attract around 50 percent women. Women are less likely to study certain subjects like Computer Science in college and less likely to apply for related positions.
“To my knowledge, we’ve only had three female software applicants and one of them is me,” Hanna said.
To attract female applicants, some companies have experimented with offering extra incentives to current employees who refer diverse talent to the hiring pool. Such initiatives are not illegal so long as the final selection process is based on merit. Executives also suggested reaching women where they are spending time online, or at events like Grace Hopper.
Smart leaders also pay attention to gender balance at the beginning, when they first open an office. Not all Workiva’s development teams struggle with diversity. The office in Saskatoon is 50/50 men and women with close to 20 employees. Hanna and Trom attribute this balance to management’s focus on hiring women at the outset.
“It’s much easier to maintain a diverse workforce when you start with one,” Hanna said.
Co-locating different functional roles and forming cross-functional teams is another way to create a more women-friendly work environment. Seeding folks from marketing or user experience among the software engineers can bring much-needed balance to male-dominated teams.
2. Influence women’s career choices at the college level.
In some fields like marketing technology, startups have had great success attracting women. Sixty percent of Bozeman-based Elixiter’s workforce is women, said Founder Andrew Hull.
Elixiter specializes in software platform configuration, a process Hull described as “the geek-out side of marketing, not the artsy-craftsy side of marketing.” Jobs at Elixiter require skill with “analytics and an engineering mindset,” Hull said.
In order to attract female applicants, Hull and his team visit classrooms to get in front of marketing students at Montana colleges as early as their freshman year, educating students about the opportunities in MarTech and prompting them to re-evaluate their career choices.
“We built a huge training program,” Hull said. “That allowed us to control our destiny, pull heavily out of the university system in Montana. It allows for a very equal workplace.”
Colleges can also change their messaging around STEM fields to make them more appealing to women.
“Women go into technology for different reasons than guys do,” Hanna said. “For me, A) it pays really well, and B) it’s a profession you can help people with. That viewpoint is not pushed as much as it could be. We change our customers’ lives with what we do. We don’t talk about that side of computer science at that level in the programs.”
3. Be mindful of ways your work environment or recruiting process may be unfriendly to women.
Executives pointed out that expensive incentives offered by large Silicon Valley companies – unlimited parental leave, multi-million dollar recruiting budgets – make it hard for Montana tech firms to compete nationally for the limited pool of female talent. But hiring managers also recognized that their own unwitting mistakes have compounded the problem.
David Thompson, VP of Engineering for SoFi, followed a common path in the technology industry: hiring people for his team of developers out of his own network, which happened to be mostly men. The male-dominated environment that began to grow in SoFi’s Helena office subsequently made it harder for them to hire women. Female applicants told Thompson they felt uncomfortable in job interviews.
“A large portion of that was due to the high majority of men we hired early on,” Thompson said. “It was 20 or 30 of us, hiring people we knew. Not hiring outside of those circles. We had to clean up our act.”
In 2015, SoFi started improving their hiring process. Managers were careful not to walk women through rooms full of men during interviews. They limited Friday afternoon open kegs that seemed to propagate a frat house feel and invested in specialized training.
SoFi’s leaders are also cultivating a wider recruiting circle. They’re meeting with and encouraging female college freshmen to stick with Computer Science, as well as sponsoring their attendance at the Grace Hopper conference. Today, SoFi averages around 15 percent women on its engineering team.
“It gets better all the time,” Thompson said. “As we’ve gotten much bigger, those stereotypes go away.”
4. Leverage role models to show diversity in tech fields, beginning in K-12.
Ginny Coles, Attorney for Dorsey and Whitney in Missoula, noted that the gender imbalance in tech today reminds her of similar dynamics in the legal profession 30 years ago. The ratio of female to male graduates of law schools is now about 50/50, so there is perhaps something to be learned from law.
Hanna noted that many of the improvements in gender balance in fields like law and medicine started with television.
“Dramatizations like Law and Order and doctor shows made the space friendlier,” Hanna said. “Even though it’s totally fake, it shows it’s something that can be done [by women]. Every time you have a coder on a show, they are a slovenly white male who never leaves their parent’s basement.”
The narrow view of a “typical coder” has limited the types of personalities drawn to highly technical roles. This has a negative impact on the workplace for men as well as women. David Hayden, Founder of Service Target in Bozeman, cited his own experience joining an engineering team as a non-engineer in 2005.
“It was a horrible environment,” Hayden said. “The lights were off, they only talked Dungeons and Dragons at lunch, a lot of people needed an API to talk to a human. It was not accessible for me, I can’t imagine being a woman there. In part it’s culture, who we’re recruiting. If you want it to be accessible to new people with a new perspective, you have to be conscious of who you’re recruiting.”
Executives agreed that it’s important to start in K-12 education, showing young people – girls and boys – that tech and manufacturing are fun, and exposing them to new types of jobs they may not have considered. Companies like Montana Instruments and Foundant Technologies host school tours, and the Bozeman Schools Foundation has a committee raising funds to start STEM programs in the K-8 curriculum.
Leaders suggested that when companies show their work environment to young people and create videos of diverse technology workers talking about what their jobs are like day-to-day, kids find role models they can relate to.
For Trom, addressing tech’s gender gap isn’t just a professional goal, it’s a personal one.
“Selfishly, I have two daughters in high school,” Trom said. “It doesn’t start in college. It has to be brought all the way back [to K-12].”
Trom is thankful both daughters are interested in STEM careers.
The MHTBA is working to bring together women in technical roles, helping women at various companies feel less alone – like part of a larger community – in partnership with organizations like the Women’s Foundation of Montana and ChickTech. To sign up for updates on this initiative, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author: Christina Quick Henderson is executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance and adjunct professor of entrepreneurship, management and organizational behavior in the College of Business at the University of Montana.
About the publisher: Launched in 2014, the Montana High Tech Business Alliance is an association of 350 high tech and manufacturing companies and affiliates creating high-paying jobs in Montana. For more information visit MTHighTech.org.