SantaCruz: Where are the women in Austin’s tech scene?

SantaCruz: Where are the women in Austin’s tech scene?

Attendance by women was strong at last week’s event at St. Edward’s University, which marked National Day of Civic Hacking. It yielded the kind of turnout that reflects a prediction made in the tech industry two years ago, when experts gave way to a growing population of women in the field. Yet, participation at the event did not reflect this reality: There’s still a lack of women in Austin’s tech scene.

While the presence of women at the university’s ATX Hack for Change last week was robust — as is the case in many weekly and monthly scheduled tech-related events — it is not representative of the number of women in Austin’s tech industry. The truth is, much more needs to be done to ensure reality meets the perception of diversity played out at local events. That is why women in local tech organizations play such a vital role in giving a face and voice to the issue.

On any given day, professional women in this city attend hack-a-thons and Meetups and take part in conferences and panels that not only strengthen their skills and community ties, but help them serve as ambassadors to the industry as well. With their attendance, women like Tricia Katz, director of Women Who Code ATX, are working hard to bring attention to the need for diversity in Austin’s tech industry.

I know — the lack of women in the field doesn’t make sense. Here, in a city lauded for being one of the best for women in the workforce, and where women make up the majority of the City Council, it’s hard to believe that Austin falls below the national average when it comes to women in tech. But it’s true — and it’s also bad for business.

The technology sector is a key employment base in Austin, accounting for about 110,000 local jobs as of the first of the year, according to a report from the Computing Technology Industry Association. Without diversity, innovation is only half-baked.

A study released earlier this year by personal finance company SmartAsset found that 21.2 percent of Austin’s tech jobs are filled by women, a number well below the national average of 26.5 percent.

What difference does this make? Research shows that diversity in any business model leads to better outcomes.

There are a variety of reasons for the lack of women in the tech industry, including its unequal pay for women. Another reason frequently cited has been the industry’s reputation of unfriendliness to women — and in some cases, to minorities — which have resulted in a handful of high-profile harassment lawsuits.

However, lower salaries and hostility aren’t the only issues keeping women from being more prevalent in Austin’s tech industry. The fact is women and minorities are increasingly more interested in joining the tech industry. As such, it shouldn’t be a problem to fill the tech scene’s growing need, right? Sort of, says Katz, a software developer.

True, more individuals are learning to code and program, Katz told me in a recent phone interview — but one persistent problem facing the industry is its existing skills gap.

Employers are looking for a certain skill level that has become difficult to meet, Katz says. Many of the women and young aspiring coders who are ready to enter the tech workforce do so with very limited experience. As a result, Katz said, companies look beyond Austin to fill those roles.

There is also the equally pressing issue of a lack of tech women in leadership roles. This may be one of the industry’s heaviest burdens. Katz points out that without those leadership opportunities, women either leave Austin for better opportunities or leave the tech industry altogether. A simple remedy for retention would be for small and large companies to invest in their people by presenting the prospect to learn and grow within these establishments. Absence of those opportunities continues the cycle of underrepresentation.

Without more women in leadership roles, young women and girls have a limited view of what’s possible to achieve. It’s difficult to aspire to be something you can’t see. Arguably, one of the most important components of innovative thinking is diversity.

Which brings us back to the importance of groups like Women Who Code ATX and others, including Austin Women in Technology. Members of these groups serve as mentors to aspiring young tech professionals, as well as a support system for those already in the field. They are also the constant reminder of how much more growing up Austin’s tech scene still has to do.


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