By Leslie Lynn Smith, National Director for GET Cities
We’ve been at the work of GET (Gender Equality in Tech) Cities for a little over a year now, and by this fall we will be actively pursuing equity and inclusion in the tech economy in three US cities (Chicago, DC and City 3, TBA soon). When you launch a movement as ambitious as ours in the midst of a pandemic, your purpose, goals and core activities can be missed in the chaos of it all or unintentionally unclear. Thus, we offer some points of clarity and will be writing in depth about this work, what we learn, who we work with, the impact we have and the barriers we face so that collectively, we can do better.
Women hold 26% of tech jobs in the US and Black women are just 3% of the tech workforce. Asian women are 6% and Hispanic women are 2%.
50% of women said they have experienced gender discrimination at work.
Before diving into the nitty-gritty, it’s important to be clear about some core beliefs and principles that guide our work. First of all, when we say “tech economy,” we are referring to information technology, computer technology, artificial intelligence, and machine learning; and we are including start-ups and applications that come from these areas. We include tech employment and innovation at corporations like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, Dell, as well as technology utilized within other industries, like the technology that powers our shipping and personal vehicles. Second, we know that women are not being fully included in the tech economy, to the great detriment of full economic abundance.
We also know that, broadly speaking, women and their contributions have been underestimated, undervalued, and at times prevented altogether. Women’s domestic labor is uncompensated and assumed. Women’s safety and experiences aren’t a priority in the dominant culture, which is white and male. The current economic system is built for the benefit of men and lacks resilience and support for women. All of these facts fly in the face of common sense for a flourishing economy – one which includes the participation, insight, knowledge and expertise of all people; one which is informed by the experiences of everyone; one in which power and influence is shared; and one where a person’s gender or race cannot predict the amount of influence and wealth they will accrue over the course of their life. It is in pursuit of this just, inclusive, and growing economy that we move forward.
We focus on tech because of its enormous economic and societal impact – tech is part of almost every aspect of our lives. To achieve our goal of women’s inclusion, influence, and power in the tech economy, we break our activities into three main pillars – academia, industry, and innovation.
In the academic realm, we are striving to get more women across the country enrolled in and receiving degrees in computing, and entering tech careers. We do this in partnership with Break Through Tech, whose curriculum innovation, career access and community building programs have proven effective at scale across NY, and in Chicago.
We are also working together and through our research to explore pipelines to four-year universities and non-traditional paths to four-year institutions. Unfortunately, the proportion of women represented in computer science peaked in the 1980s and has declined steadily ever since. Our culture signals to women that computing degrees are not appropriate for them. Anecdotally, we have found that women are often actively discouraged from pursuing computing degrees. We are allowing expectations to be assigned by gender – and the expectation in academia is clear: if you’re a woman, computer science isn’t for you. We work with academic institutions to ensure we’re engaged with their talent initiatives, their entrepreneurship initiatives, and their innovation initiatives.
Within the industry pillar of activities, we want to ensure there’s an increasing number of women moving into roles within the tech economy, and that not only are they getting said jobs, but are being promoted and persisting in roles that influence the tech that impacts our world. Quite simply, it’s an imbalanced world if the white, male perspective is the singular perspective on the design, development, and launch of technologies. Current data suggests women hold 26% of jobs in the tech industry nationally – meaning we’re only halfway to the full economic potential of women’s participation in the tech economy. Relative to industry behaviors, we want to go beyond discussions about why diversity, inclusion and equity in tech are important, to quantitative and qualitative data that proves it. To do so, we seek to gain a clear understanding, not only of the broad-based experiences of women in tech, but also understanding that breaks down further by race, sexuality, and other socioeconomic factors which intersect with gender. With that information we can build new policies and structural behaviors that meaningfully move the needle relative to attraction, hiring, promotion and professional investments in women to expand their influence and impact across the entire tech economy.
Finally, within our third pillar, innovation, we are working towards increasing the number of women founders of tech companies through narrative storytelling about women technologists who act as role models and actively invite other women to the fold. We also have to increase the volume, voracity and efficiency of capital distribution to women founders, an outcome that has evaded us for years. In venture capital, the investment numbers in every stage of investment in female-led companies are abysmal, and, in fact, the numbers have deteriorated during the pandemic. We are going the wrong way.
We are looking at our three pillars – academia, industry, innovation – intersectionally. We are interested in how these pillars influence, impact, and overlap with each other. We are working on research and data collection that inform a narrative which emphasizes the economic imperative of women’s participation in the tech economy. If our economy does not look like our country, we’re missing out on equity and an economy that serves the needs of our entire population.
We are confident that these giant steps toward economic equity can be made and modeled in emerging US tech hubs, establishing a playbook for equity in tech which can be adopted in cities across the country, catalyzing a movement that launches us toward our full economic potential in a just, inclusive and resilient way. Together we can build the future we imagine. If not now, when?
Leslie Lynn Smith is nationally recognized for her leadership in entrepreneurship and economic development, and currently serves as the National Director for GET Cities. Smith is a TEDx speaker, is a frequent moderator of panels about gender and racial justice in economic development, has been a keynote speaker at myriad economic development and social impact conferences such as Meeting of the Minds, SSTI, INBIA, and Rise of the Rest. She has been featured in Forbes, USA Today, Crain’s, Style Blueprint, The Commercial Appeal, the Memphis Business Journal and is a regular blogger on Medium and guest on podcasts, such as Grindset and Storyboard. She’s also delivered entrepreneurial master classes virtually and in-person. Smith was recognized as a 2019 Super Woman of Business and a 2020 Leadership Memphis Changemaker. Smith has a vision for American Cities: one that centers entrepreneurship as a key economic development strategy and pathway to individual, familial and community wealth.