Chicago startup hub empowers women in technology on International Women’s Day

Yingcong (June) Fu

Sandi Mays, chief information officer at Zayo Group, dresses up for work, but then finds herself surrounded by men in jeans and t-shirts.

She is often interrupted by men when she is the lone woman at meetings at the Boulder, Colorado-based communications technology company, and she sometimes gets left out of social events in the male-dominated workplace.

“When men go out and play golf, you don’t even necessarily get invited. So you are sitting back at the office, working hard, and they’re playing golf,” Mays said. She spoke on a panel to a packed audience of women in technology at 1871 for International Women’s Day on Wednesday.

According to data by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while women accounted for 46.8 percent of the total employees in 2016, only 25.5 percent of computer and math related occupations were held by women.

The tech industry is dominated by men. (Yingcong (June) Fu/MEDILL)

“It’s a hard industry, long hours, and it doesn’t really cater to the feminine. It’s a very masculine industry,” said Jessica Zweig, an entrepreneur who hosted a separate conversation organized by Ms. Tech, a networking organization in Chicago.

Jessica Zweig hosted a conversation organized by Ms. Tech at 1871. (Yingcong (June) Fu/MEDILL)

As a result, many women tend to leave the industry in the middle of their careers.

A factsheet by National Center for Women & Information Technology in 2016 showed that the quit rate of women was more than twice that of men in the high tech industry, and approximately half of women left the field after about 12 years.

Susan Fowler, who wrote a blog about the sexual harassment and unfairness she experienced in the year that she worked as a site reliability engineer at Uber, is a case in point, Zweig said.

Fowler left Uber for a job at Stripe a month later. “On my last day at Uber, I calculated the percentage of women who were still in the organization,” Fowler wrote in her blog. “Out of over 150 engineers in the SRE teams, only 3 percent were women.”

“If you feel like you are alone, you are much more likely to choose a place where you are not alone,” Mays said, referring to the central reason women leave tech jobs in male-dominated companies.

The women who spoke at Wednesday’s events emphasized that the tech industry needs to change to make women and other minorities more welcome. “Why diversity is important is not just because women are better or men are better, or Hispanics are better. It’s because you are paying people to participate 100 percent,” Mays said.

The issue is one of fairness as well. Jobs in technology pay more and can be a socio-economic leg up for women and minorities.

According to BLS data, the median weekly earnings in computer and math occupations was $1,443 in 2016, 73.4 percent higher than the median of total occupations. The median weekly earnings for women was $1,325, 12.7 percent lower than that for men.

“To be good in STEM, you don’t have to be a man or a woman,” said Anh Kieu, network designer at Zayo Group, who describes herself as “the minority” on her team. She has worked there for nearly a year, and has no plans to leave.

“I can see a lot of growth in this area, and there’s so much potential. I still feel I can contribute and continue to work here,” Kieu said.

Photo at top:1871, the Chicago startup hub, organized a series of events for International Women’s Day. (Yingcong (June) Fu/MEDILL)