By David Ranii
Girl Develop It helps women learn web and software development. The national nonprofit has chapters in 57 cities, including Charlotte and Durham. Photo courtesy of Girl Develop It.
Though fascinated from an early age by the HTML computer language, Marjorie Sample spent six years teaching writing, language arts and social studies in Franklin and Wake County schools before switching to a technology career. She now works at Fidelity Investments in Durham and credits the Girl Develop It program, a nonprofit offering women affordable tech classes, for helping her make the switch to work she finds enormously satisfying.
Although she has heard complaints about sexism from women who work in tech elsewhere, Sample hasn’t experienced it at Fidelity, where she is a user researcher. “We have just as many women as we have men,” she says. “I know it’s not the norm.”
North Carolina is No. 1 among U.S. states for the percentage of women employed in tech, although it ranks second when the District of Columbia is in the mix. Brooks Raiford, CEO of the N.C. Technology Association, has heard some of the state’s large tech employers tout the data as part of their recruitment pitch to a field still dominated by men. The companies are often familiar faces to the pipeline of computer-science and information-technology graduates from universities such as Duke, N.C. State, UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Charlotte. Ditto for the state’s community colleges.
North Carolina benefits from the in-migration of highly skilled workers, both women and men. A recent “brain drain” study by Bloomberg found that Raleigh and Durham ranked sixth and seventh, respectively, among the nation’s cities for attracting STEM workers and those with advanced degrees. The Raleigh-Durham chapter of Girl Develop It, a national group, was formed in 2012 to address the paucity of women in tech. It has quickly grown to nearly 2,700 members.
Large tech employers such as MetLife and Cisco Systems have made special efforts to recruit women, says Joan Siefert Rose, a senior partner at management consulting firm Creo Inc. and former CEO of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, a Durham-based nonprofit support group for entrepreneurs.
Kimberly Jenkins, co-founder and chair of Rewriting the Code, a Durham-based nonprofit that supports women in technology at the undergraduate level, says Triangle tech employers have deliberately adopted an Avis-versus-Hertz strategy when it comes to recruiting top talent. “We’re not Silicon Valley … so we try harder,” Jenkins says. “One of the ways we try harder is to focus on talent that is often overlooked in Silicon Valley.” Putting out the welcome mat for women is a great way for tech employers to distinguish themselves from the competition.
“It’s pretty entrenched that many tech cultures are hostile to women,” says Jenkins, whose résumé includes stints as an executive at Microsoft and at Steve Jobs’ other computer company, NeXT. To be sure, headlines this year have spotlighted sexism and/or sexual harassment at marquee Silicon Valley companies Uber and Google. But Jenkins has found that North Carolina’s tech employers are generally more accepting. “I think it is more hospitable here,” she says.
Haley Bohon, founder and CEO of SkillPop, a Charlotte-based company that offers a variety of “pop-up classes” in four cities across the Southeast, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from N.C. State in 2012. “I think it’s a good time to be a woman in tech” in North Carolina, Bohon says. “I think there are more resources available now than there were 20 years ago.”
The Triangle has seen an uptick in tech startups founded by women or boasting women in leadership spots. But N.C. startups with at least one female founder — tech or otherwise — typically don’t receive the same level of investment as those started exclusively by men. This year, 26 women-led startups raised about $59 million compared with 122 companies founded exclusively by men that raised $771 million through Nov. 1, according to venture capital database PitchBook.
Brooks Bell, founder and CEO of a Raleigh marketing-analytics company with 50-plus employees, says being the female CEO of a tech company has been a plus because it helps the company that bears her name stand out from the competition. On the downside, when her business was in its infancy, she experienced “inappropriate” sexual advances on several occasions while attending out-of-state tech conferences. In one instance, Bell says, a top-echelon executive at a large Silicon Valley tech company “invited me to his condo … and put his hand on my back” within minutes of being introduced to her. Bell immediately took evasive action, telling the executive that she had to go fetch her laptop, and walked away. She chose not to make a big deal of it, she says, because there was no upside to kicking up a fuss at a conference taking place in California.
Although North Carolina has a right to be proud of its diverse tech workforce, the women in tech across the state are “disproportionately young” and in the early stages of their careers, Raiford says. The next test is whether the state’s tech employers have a culture that can retain and promote women along with their male colleagues over the long run. National data, Jenkins says, show that 41% of women in tech drop out within the first 10 years of their careers, more than twice the male dropout rate of 17%.