Women in Tech Talks Strategies for Equity and Access
By Laura Cowan
Laura K. Cowan is a tech editor and journalist whose work has focused on promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets.
Women in Tech is a newer conference added to Ann Arbor's a2tech360 week, which includes over a dozen tech conferences, networking events, pitch competitions and investing summits covering the latest growth and trends in Michigan's tech-related industries, from life sciences and mobility to software and security. This year's Women in Tech panel included Lauren Bigelow from Growth Capital Network, MJ Cartwright from Matterhorn by Court Innovations, and Ariella Shikanow from ArtOva Therapeutics. The event was moderated by Margarita Hernandez from Ann Arbor SPARK.
Stats on The State of Women in Tech
"Women in tech. It starts with STEM," said Hernandez. "When I thought of tech, I pictured someone in a hoodie coding, drinking a Pepsi, listening to Beastie Boys. But my daughter is coding right now, millennials code as curriculum. It snapped for me. I had stereotyped who codes, and who can code was sitting right next to me. I have to remember that that stereotype has to go away. If I want my daughter to be in STEM, I have to talk to my daughter about what that means and some challenges she may face. Stereotyping and challenges women face in tech are real, they exist, but they also are dying. It's our job to make sure... we have equality."
Hernandez highlighted some stats on women in the tech industry, and what is changing--what still needs to change and more importantly how that impacts the industry as a whole because of lack of diversity.
"Only 20% of Google, Microsoft, Amazon and other major tech companies are women. Only 8% of investors are women. Just 2% of VC investors are Hispanic. Less than 1% are black. Venture capital firms increased their female partners and hires by 10%. A 1.5% increase year over year of increased investment in female-led startups resulted in 10% more profitable exits. Only 30% of VC investments have a profitable exit," Hernandez said. "That's a huge ROI. By not hiring women, you're helping your competitors."
According to Hernandez, female-led startups generate 78 cents on the dollar of investment, while male-led startups generate less than half of that. Women only hold 25% of tech jobs in the U.S. Only 25% of leadership positions in tech are held by women. "But when we go back and think about why it's important to make sure next generations have opportunity, 75% of girls express a desire for a career in a STEM field. But only 18% of females choose that for their career or Bachelor choice. And 25% of professional computing jobs are held by women. There is a lot of change that is ongoing, and a lot of growth."
Factors in this equation: lesser wage for the same position for women, unequal opportunities, derogatory behavior from male colleagues... and lack of mentors. "We can change this," Hernandez said. "We are doing this, it's going to get better. But I want to empower you with the idea that you can do this. The stories of the women who are talking today: take this as a way to find tools and methods and grow yourself. How are you going to mentor the next generation so they can rise and we can continue to grow our ecosystem?"
Ariella Shikalov talking about her career as a scientist working to improve reproductive function.
Stories of Women in Tech
The panel started with a talk by Ariella Shikanov, who works on technologies to help restore reproductive function. "You will notice I have an accent. I am trying to show that being an immigrant shouldn't stop you, even if you have an accent when you speak English," she said. "It's very important to find advocates so you can find people to introduce you and advocate for your work. Perserverance is 95% of my work, the other 5% luck. I encourage the people around me and myself to accept criticism. No one likes to hear about their faults.... It's not personal. I learned over the years to manage my time and prioritize what's important and what can be done later. I think kindness is important and will heal this world, so I encourage my students to do the same."
Shikalov says she was born in Ukraine in the former Soviet Union, and then immigrated again to Israel, "as if one immigration wasn't enough," she said. She started a career in pharmacy to support herself, but then went to graduate school. "I was a good student, but there were better," she said of her subsequent journey through graduate school and into a career as a scientist.
From Shikalov's story to others, the theme of the day was encouragement: if women could meet the challenges of being single mothers, getting through grad school and finding a lab where they could keep up like Shikalov had to when her mother had leukemia, then so can you.
It's nice to see that Women In Tech continues to track improvement in the dismal statistics on women's access to STEM careers and equitable treatment in the tech industry. The numbers are changing, and women like Shikalov and Hernandez are doing their part to pave the way for their colleagues and for the next generation--not only for the benefit of women but for the obvious benefit of the entire tech ecosystem, which is tremendously more robust and even profitable when women find their seat at the table.