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Vermont Groups Train and Support Women in Tech


Published October 21, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Meg Randall

Meg Randall got her first tech job fresh out of college. After earning a degree in religious studies and anthropology from St. Lawrence University, she found a gig handling the email, website and coding for the Feminist Majority Foundation in Washington, D.C., and realized she had a knack for it.

Her all-female intro to the tech world was unusual, to say the least.

It wasn't until Randall took a similar position at Burlington-based Localvore Today in 2012 that she noticed the scarcity of females in her field. At networking events, Randall was surrounded by men. Speakers talked about "all the guys out there looking to start a company," as though no woman would attempt such a thing.

"The language is always something that sticks out to me," she says, remembering how she felt listening to those presentations. "I always felt like it was clear that people had an idea of who their audience was, and it was male."

Randall wasn't imagining the gender inequity. The National Center for Women & Information Technology reported in April that women held 26 percent of the professional computing occupations in the U.S. workforce in 2014, compared with 57 percent of all professional occupations, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. A similar study by the American Association of University Women found that percentage has actually dropped since 1990, when women occupied 35 percent of computing jobs.

Randall recalls finding hope and solidarity at a Lesbians Who Tech Summit in New York City, where all of the presenters, and the majority of participants, were female.

"It felt so powerful — a huge room full of women in the industry that I'm in," she says. "It was so refreshing. It felt revolutionary. And I didn't know how badly I had needed it until after I went."

On her way back to Burlington, she decided to launch a local chapter of LWT.

Randall isn't alone in working to even the score in Vermont, where technology job recruiters struggle to find skilled candidates. While LWT is focused on networking, at least two other female-centric tech groups have sprung up in the past two years to help train women for high-paying computing jobs.

First on the scene was the Burlington chapter of Girl Develop It. A national nonprofit, GDI describes itself as an "affordable and judgment-free" option for women to learn web and software development. Contrary to one possible suggestion of its name, GDI's tech training is geared toward adult women, not girls.

Chapter founder Maureen McElaney discovered the group while working at an engineering firm in Philadelphia. Trying to expand her skills, she found her way to tech events, where she noticed that the few women in attendance tended to gather silently at the back of the room. When they did speak up, their questions inspired a certain amount of eye rolling. GDI aims to change all that.

When McElaney and her husband moved to Burlington, she missed having "a place to go and collaborate with other women," she says, "where it was really geared toward women, towards encouraging women to come who maybe were too shy or didn't think they were smart enough."

With GDI, she says, "we really want to create a safe space, where you don't have to feel embarrassed about any question that comes to mind. We try to make sure people know, if you're having that question, five other people in the room are probably also having that question."

When McElaney launched GDI Burlington at the Monkey House in Winooski in March 2013, she knew she'd hit a nerve — 80 techie women and their friends showed up, and many signed up to take or teach classes. After two and a half years, Burlington's GDI chapter counts more than 850 members.

McElaney herself is a GDI success story. After taking the group's classes, she is now a quality assurance engineer at automotive web solutions company and has become a go-to guru for local women in tech.

Vermont Works for Women is also getting in on the action. The nonprofit, which helps women pursue nontraditional careers such as welding and policing, created its first Step Up to Information Technology training session this year.

"Women can make a transition into a good, high-paying, stable job without going into debt," says program coordinator Jenny Beaudin. "It was a no-brainer."

The 16-week program ran from January to May and taught the common programming languages JavaScript, HTML and CSS, as well as classes in WordPress, Google Analytics and other platforms. Women who master the fundamentals can vie for jobs against college graduates with computer science degrees, because the demand for skilled tech workers so dramatically exceeds the supply, Beaudin says.

But many women still don't think they can achieve that mastery. Both Beaudin and McElaney note that women often lack confidence and give up, figuring technology is changing too quickly for them to keep the pace. Others suffer from "imposter syndrome," Beaudin says, convinced that they know less than their colleagues.

"Especially in tech, there's this bravado that comes out, and maybe it's mostly men that have that bravado," McElaney offers. "Really, no one knows everything. Everyone's googling all day long, and that's the secret that people don't know."

Anahi Costa doubted her own proficiency when she began attending GDI classes to expand her knowledge while doing freelance work in online marketing, she says. The classes showed her that she knew more than she realized, and the SQL training gave her insight into the logic behind the programming language.

"I used to look at code before, and it always felt very scary," she says. "After that class, I felt I not only can read, but I can write code. That is the exciting part."

GDI instructors routinely start by explaining the reasons for learning a particular concept. Typical tech training plunges in without establishing that context, McElaney says.

"We're coming to it from the standpoint of, 'This person may not understand why this skill's important, or where they would use it, or where they're going to see it on job listings,'" she says.

Armed with her GDI training, Costa scored a position as an operations specialist in implementation and support for MyWebGrocer, the Winooski company that develops e-commerce applications for grocery retailers and brands such as Kellogg's and Unilever. She recalls how during her interview, when someone asked whether she could work in a particular program, she readily boasted, "Definitely, yes, I can!"

Logic Supply, a computer hardware company based in South Burlington, embraces all efforts to expand the number of qualified tech workers in Vermont, says Mark Heyman, human resources director. The company has supported both GDI and Step Up to IT, providing space for meetings and classes and allowing employees to serve as speakers and teachers for the groups.

"Overall, recruitment is one of the toughest challenges for the tech sector today, both in Vermont and elsewhere," Heyman says. Women add a beneficial perspective that the male-oriented workforce in the tech industry generally lacks, he adds: "We want to be open, fair and innovative, and it's going to take everybody to help us get there."

GDI and Step Up to IT emphasize technical training, but both also offer elements of networking and career building. GDI organizes teams for competitive events such as HackVT and a recent Game Jam. Step Up workshops brought in professionals from local companies to discuss career options and make contacts with participants.

Women in tech often feel isolated on the job and need avenues for building connections with their peers, McElaney says. GDI groups give them chances to meet potential mentors who can guide them through conflicts at work, salary negotiations or relationships with superiors, she notes.

"A lot of the time that's how you get promoted, that's how you move up, how you get leadership positions," McElaney says. "That's really the next step, where women really to need to start to offer those kinds of opportunities."

Randall started the local Lesbians Who Tech to facilitate that kind of advancement. When the Localvore team talks about the need to find good developers, someone often mentions "this guy who totally has the skill set," she says. "And that person's name gets on the list."

She wants more women's names on those lists. "So much of the way the world works is, it's who you know," Randall says. "I want to know who in the community has the skills that we're looking for."

So far, the LWT networking events have attracted just a couple of women, Randall says. The word "lesbian" might have something to do with the small turnout, even in the GLBT-friendly environment of Burlington, she acknowledges. But Randall intends to include all geeks — gay or straight, male or female, and gender nonconforming.

"It's about creating a safe space and a supportive space," she says. "And part of that is creating a woman-dominated space, creating a counterbalance, but making sure that it feels open and accepting of all gender identities."

GDI Burlington welcomes men, too. McElaney recounts with pride the thank-you letter she got from one guy who took classes there. Women-only Step Up to IT has benefited from experienced male techies who offered to teach or build curricula.

Many of those men have daughters who may one day pursue tech careers. "They see that it's not a great environment," says McElaney. "And they want it to be different for their girls when they grow up."

Girl Develop It and Vermont Works for Women exhibit at the Vermont Tech Jam on Friday and Saturday, October 23 and 24.

The next Lesbians Who Tech event is scheduled for Thursday, November 5, 5:30 p.m., at Localvore Today in Burlington.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Silicon Ceiling"

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