Where the Tech is She?

Portland's software industry is booming. So where are all the women?

On a warm morning last June, Mayor Sam Adams stood in front of a crowd of computer geeks at the Eliot Center in downtown Portland wearing a scarf stitched with "Open Source Citizen."

Adams was boasting about the city's achievements in information technology, saying that "software and digital design companies" are one of four key industries the City of Portland has targeted for its economic development strategy.

"Give yourselves a round of applause," he said. "You are one of the most diverse, robust, creative and fleet-footed, smart and good-looking group of industry folks in the City of Portland.” 

It's true that in this sector, business is good. High-tech startups are multiplying downtown like a cocoon of wet gremlins, raking in headline-grabbing investments from venture capitalists and hiring like it's 2007.

"Robust," "creative," "fleet-footed" and "smart"? Almost certainly.

But "diverse"?

A survey of 11 recent Portland tech startups, ranging from companies with four employees to 80, reveals that their total workforces were typically 70 percent to 80 percent male, while their development and engineering teams—i.e., the people who write the actual code—have even fewer women. In many cases, none.

Females are even scarcer in the open-source software community—people who work on free and open projects like Linux and Firefox—which is particularly active in Portland and which the Portland Development Commission cites as a major "strength" of the local software industry. According to a 2006 study funded by the European Union, about 1.5 percent of open-source contributors are women.

"It's a huge problem," says Alex Payne, a former Twitter engineer and founder of local online banking startup Simple. Payne's opinion is public-spirited, but it's also practical: Groups of young, white men can't necessarily make products and software that appeal to a broad consumer base. "Portland is a very liberal place, a very egalitarian place," Payne says. "It would be nice if people's staff was reflecting that."

Portland is not alone in this challenge, and startups are handicapped by the lack of females with degrees in the right fields (see chart below).

But the male-dominated atmosphere can often feed on itself. According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, 56 percent of technical women leave the field at the "mid-level" point of their careers—double the rate of men, and higher than for science and engineering.

Besides, many tech startup executives in Portland say they're open to hiring engineers and developers without degrees in the field. So what's keeping the women away?


It's the latest buzzword in the industry: A supposed new breed of coders who buck the traditional shy-geek image with a testosterone-fueled "code-hard, play-hard” lifestyle reminiscent of The Social Network. Programmer, so the stereotype goes, is the new stockbroker. 

Are these overgrown frat boys infiltrating Portland's startup scene? It depends whom you ask.

"This is not a brogrammer kind of shop," says Sam Blackman, the CEO of startup Elemental Technologies, which makes video software at its downtown office and employs 69 people, 15 of whom are female. But, he believes, "there are certain companies that really celebrate that kind of culture.” 

While some consider startup offices decked out with kegerators, pingpong tables, pinball machines and video games to be a dream workplace, to others, they look like, well, frat houses.

"I left [startups] running and screaming," says Christie Koehler, who now works as a Web product engineer at Mozilla (the Firefox people), where she says she's no longer pressured to put in ridiculous hours or work next to pinball machines. 

"There's a huge overlap with brogrammers and startup culture," Koehler says. "If you follow the money aspect, what is more appealing to a [venture capitalist]: the [guy] who's going to—grrr!—work 68 hours a week, or the mom with three kids who's going to stay at home and have a more balanced life? Of course the brogrammer. That's free money."

Last year, OSCON—a huge annual open-source convention held in Portland—was forced to adopt a code of conduct amid allegations of sexist presentations, parties staffed by "Hooters girls," and men stalking, harassing and grabbing the butts of women attendees. Several speakers pulled out of the 2011 conference until O'Reilly Media, the producer of OSCON, agreed to write a code. 

"When we learned in more detail about issues of harassment that had happened at past OSCONs and at other tech conferences, we wanted to take steps to prevent harassment from happening again," says Suzanne Axtell, O'Reilly's communications manager. "It's an unfortunate fact that harassment and discrimination still happen in our industry.... More and more evidence points to diversity as a key to making technologies, products and teams better."

Jessamyn Smith is an engineer at Urban Airship, one of Portland's most successful new startups, with $21.6 million in venture-capital funding to its name. Smith is an easygoing woman with short-cropped hair, a strong Canadian accent and a pendant of Ada Lovelace (a 19th-century British countess who is regarded by some as the world's first computer programmer—ironically, computer programming was considered "women's work" as late as the 1960s). She is among four female "technical" employees out of 48 at the company. (An "engineer" at a tech company in the U.S. is not necessarily a qualified engineer, just as people titled "architects" and "ninjas" in the industry are typically neither. Smith is a qualified engineer, one of four women who graduated from computer engineering at her university in Canada.)

Smith says like many women in the industry, she distanced herself from being a "feminist" and wouldn't speak up when she heard a sexist joke. Now a 10-year programming veteran, she's finding her voice.

"I went through a real change in the last few years, from sort of feeling we just have to make it work to 'Why should we do all the accommodating?'" she says. "Maybe the guys should accommodate us sometimes."

A few months ago, Smith decided to make it happen. Someone at Urban Airship had created a "bot" that periodically inserted the phrase "that's what she said" into conversation on the work IRC (it's a sort of chat network) channel. 

"This bot was just getting on my nerves," she said. "I was trying to explain why the joke was sexist and not a very good joke, and they weren't really listening. It was frustrating. And then it came to me in a flash one night after work...."

Smith created her own bot, one that would respond to every "that's what she said" with a quote from a notable woman like Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Austen or even Madonna. "I was amazed by some of the really quiet guys, who hardly say anything, who said, 'Thank you for doing that,'" she says.

But not everyone appreciated it. 

Smith posted the story and code on her personal blog, and it soon spread online.

"There are plenty of employees who like their company that way and if she didn't she is not really suited for the company culture. She can (and should) seek employment elsewhere. She will be better of [sic] there," opined one online commenter. "This proves that—women—python programmers have no sense of humor," said another.

"Before we had Jessamyn, we didn't have any women," says Mike Herrick, Urban Airship's vice president of engineering. "We didn't have any diversity at all—it was all a bunch of white men. While we were still a success as a company, there was definitely something lacking.... Software is a creative pursuit and an art form. Diversity makes it happen better.” 

According to a 2007 study conducted by Stanford University, the future diversity of a startup is established early—tech startups that hire the fewest number of women tend to be those that emphasize finding employees that "fit" with the company culture, where "employees exhibit strong feelings of belonging to the firm as they belong to family."

Alex Payne of Simple, the online banking startup, employs 35 people, five of whom are women, though none of those are engineers. He says having no female engineers is a big concern for the company. At Twitter, he says, one of the company's first engineering hires was a woman, which set a precedent and helped the company diversify its workforce. 

"I've seen other companies start out who don't have women on their core engineering team, and they never break out of that cycle," Payne says.

Working for a startup can be incredibly demanding. It's rarely a 9-to-5 job for those in technical and leadership roles. It is not unusual for engineers to be "on call" all night or weekends.

"It's an all-in proposition," says Monica Enand, the founder and CEO of Hillsboro-based startup Zapproved, which makes Web-based legal-compliance software and has four female employees out of 14. "And I think that's harder for women than it is for men; you have to have a really supportive family structure, or you have to be young enough that you don't have kids. And that's a big part of why women don't stay in it."

Enand was the only female computer-engineering graduate in her year at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, one of the country's top technology schools. After graduating in 1993, she flew straight to Hillsboro to work at Intel, where she worked on advanced microprocessor technology.

"There was this young culture, smart people, you worked all the time and we loved it," says Enand, a small woman with a big smile and polished patter that belies her MBA (she's got one of those as well) more so than her CE degree.

But after having kids, she found it impossible to be "all in" like the men were, and although Intel—which by many accounts has a strong human-resources department and is a positive place for a woman—was supportive, she decided to move on.

Enand says this is just the way it has to be. "If you're going to push the envelope of technology, there's going to be a core group of really smart people who work all the time to make it happen," she says. And tech startups are no different. "It's not a job," says Enand, who has been back working “all in” at Zapproved for four years. “It’s a lifestyle.” 

Enand says she doesn't think her gender has held her back in securing funding, although she does acknowledge that there is a bit of a “boys’ club” in town. 

"There's a sort of male bravado around the startup," she says, laughing. "The culture around the startup CEO, it's very—testosteroney! There's a lot of that: You're up against the odds! And you never quit! A lot of those startup leaders, y'know, drink at the Teardrop [Lounge in the Pearl District], and it's about how much drinking they do."

Zapproved does not have a kegerator.

Despite the low numbers of women working in the tech industry here, Portland does have a vibrant community of female geeks. 

Christie Koehler runs two monthly meet-ups for women in Portland's tech community: Women Who Hack, where women get together to work on their computer projects, and Code 'n' Splode, a women-majority event she compares to knitting group Stitch 'n Bitch. 

"The first part of it is a technical presentation, and then we go out to a pub, and that's when people talk through shit they've had to go through in the last month at work, what's the latest thing on Hacker News—people who are regular members save up things for that part of the meeting," Koehler says. "I feel good about working and providing a space where, two or five hours a month, we can just work on the tech and know a guy's not going to take away the keyboard or 'mansplain' something."

Last year, the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology held its annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference in Portland, with almost 3,000 women from 34 countries attending. 

And in March, around 65 women attended Portland's inaugural Geek Girl Dinner, an event with chapters all over the world where women in the local tech industry get together to network and listen to talks.

Many say Portland's community of female geeks is already more supportive and cohesive than in Silicon Valley. It's up to the local companies to connect with it—and even market it to attract potential female recruits from across the country.

On a drizzly March evening, in the big concrete bowels of the event space at Urban Airship, is another event geared toward women—though it may not look like it at first. Of the 40-odd people tapping away on laptops, eating Hot Lips pizza and helping themselves to beer from Urban's two kegerators, just five are women.

But the event's organizer, Michelle Rowley, says this is a great success. Four months ago, she was the only woman attending the local Python programming-language user group. A self-taught, self-employed programmer, she says she was discouraged by her college from studying computer science at a tertiary level (she studied French and geography instead), and began teaching herself Python in 2005 after hitting a "thick glass ceiling" doing tech support in the beer industry.

She's hoping to replicate a project by the Boston Python User Group, which grew from 2 percent to 15 percent women and up to 1,700 people in six months, by inviting women as beginners and training them as Python programmers and community members.

Rowley has created this new monthly "hack night" so the women she plans to invite—and the friends she hopes they'll bring—will have a place to learn and practice their new skills.

One woman, who works as an intern at TriMet doing computer mapping, is here for her first lesson in Python. She is paired up for a one-on-one session with an experienced programmer. "I feel like if I keep working at this, I might have a chance at making more money than [my husband] some day," she says.

As if to emphasize the point, a representative from online-search startup Trapit immediately stands on a table to announce his company is hiring. "We're right across the street from Bunk Bar!" he says.

Rowley is not alone in her vision. Many in Portland believe that programs like this could help turn the numbers of women in computing around, making up where the university system is failing.

Payne says Simple runs classes for its customer-service staff in a programming language, while one of his female customer-service employees is also learning a second. 

When an accountant at Urban Airship expressed a desire to become an engineer, Herrick says he organized for her to be mentored in learning Python. 

"If we work through the pipeline, it's going to take forever," says Urban's Smith. "We just need to get girls who are doing different jobs and want new jobs to get into programming, and we could change it in a couple of years. That's what I want to see happening.” 

Rowley is holding the first open Python workshop for new female programmers and their friends in June. By this time next year, she too wants 15 percent of Portland's Python programmers to be women.

"I did an experiment a few months back where I picked a couple women in my mind, and I just personally pinged them [online] and said, 'Hey, do you want to come to this thing?'" she says. "One said, 'I don't know anyone, I don't really want to go,' and I said, 'What if we met beforehand and got coffee, and then we would know each other?' and she said OK. All she needed was a personal invitation and to feel like 'I do belong, I am welcome here.'"

The culture of the tech industry won't change until there's a critical mass of women, Rowley says. And the only way she can think to help change that is to systematically invite the women, one by one.

“Hey,” she asks me, “are you interested in learning to code?” 

FULL DISCLOSURE: 35 percent of Willamette Week's employees are women, including 22 percent in the news room.

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