What's It Like to Be a Girl in Tech?

Girls in Tech is a social outreach organization founded in 2007 by Adriana Gascoigne, communications director of social network Hi5. GIT's mission is to enhance the careers of tech sector women with workshops, lectures, networking functions, and recruitment events in each of its chapter cities. This week, GIT announced it will expand from three chapters to eight, adding Austin, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, OR and London to the existing chapters in New York, Silicon Valley, and San Francisco.

Adriana GascoigneFastCompany.com sat down with Gascoigne to find out what it's like to be a woman working in today's male-dominated tech industry, and what GIT is doing to promote female entrepreneurship and innovation.

In predominantly male technology companies, what kind of obstacles arise for women?

The impetus for starting the organization was an experience I had way back in the day, working at a startup called Guba. The men that worked there were of technology, engineering and business backgrounds. I felt that part of my job there was to educate some of the men on my roll there and what I was doing – more so than any man had to do for any other man.

So I ended up spending time educating and communicating, making sure they knew my value at the company. That took away from the actual work that I was doing; I felt like I was being distracted because there was a lack of understanding.

What's the crux of the gender gap?

Women just engage differently and present differently. At Guba, I just wanted to absorb what everyone in the company was doing, because from a PR perspective, that's how we promote the company and gain proof points. I felt a lot of my time there was spent showing the rest of my team what I was doing.

I think women tend to be a lot more expressive, emotional and social, in a sense. With Girls In Tech, we wanted to have the networking and blog online, because that's a good resource, but there's more value in producing workshops, educational programs and lectures. From a socialization perspective, there's so much value in meeting in person and making that initial handshake. There are facial expressions that you share. People forget that, in the digital media age.

What can women do to make themselves comfortable in the tech workplace?

It's hard, because sometimes a lot of women with science and technology backgrounds – and I see this at Hi5 – they spent hours and hours working and they don't have time for the kind of events that Girls In Tech sponsors. We have a software engineer here; she usually goes home at 10 or 11 at night, so it's tough for her to pull away.

But I think that's changing. As they see the value of networking and coming together, a lot of women that were working in-house are now realizing that they can start their own companies. So going to these events and meeting people from the business side of things, the marketing side, the legal side, the PR side, that's important in building a business.

Where will tech companies be blooming in 2009?

The East Coast is really gaining traction when it comes to tech. Online advertising and biotech in Boston, and entertainment in New York. There's a huge startup component in LA for gaming, because it's so close to Silicon Valley. Similarly, Portland and Seattle are becoming hubs because they're so close to the Valley, but they're much cheaper than San Fransisco or Palo Alto. Another area of extreme interest right now is London. I've been surprised at how many startups are flourishing there.

What kinds of events will Girls In Tech chapters do in those cities this year?

We're integrating a lot of new types of events. One that has been popular has been the Field Trip series, where we go somewhere – say, CBS studios as an example – and get trained by an anchorwoman, or something of that nature. We've also created something called the Author Chat, where we highlight female authors who have some kind of alignment with technology, and we have them talk about not only the content of their book, but how to be an author.

We've also created the GIT incubator program, which has been extremely popular in the Web 2.0 world because it showcases a female-run company, or a company that caters to females. A startup comes in and does a presentation and we invite members who are interested from all different aspects of starting a business to provide resources and support for that startup. We give resources, advice, connections – it's virtual incubation. That launched last month. We started out by highlighting Mixtt; it's a dating site for groups.

We're also doing our usual social mixers and talks. At big conferences like Web 2.0 or South by Southwest, we'll have a panel or booth or an off-broadway type mixer. A lot of us fly out there to these events.

With all those great female tech minds attending these events, are new ideas ever born?

Yes. Not any I can divulge right now, but we had a VC panel early in 2008 and at least 10-15 companies got that first meeting. I'm not sure how many of them rolled out and launched, but I've received a lot of amazing emails saying, “Without this event, I wouldn't have been able to connect with XYZ venture capital firm.”

Will there eventually be an educational component to GIT?

That's the next layer of the organization that we're launching later this year: Girls In Tech University. We'll be doing a GIT tour to penetrate and promote GIT within student programs and activities centers at colleges across the country. We're working with the UC system, and some colleges on the East Coast that have shown an interest. Eventually we'll do a high school program to promote science, tech, and math amongst girls who are interested in those majors.

GITU will most likely start its planning stage and preliminary in Q2. We'll incrementally reach out to groups of universities – maybe five per chapter, and that will grow each year. GITHS won't be for a little while, based on bandwidth and how many people we have onboard.

Are more chapters in the works?

Yes. We're looking into Europe – Paris, and maybe Berlin – as well as Asia: Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong. We'll also be looking into expanding here in the US: there are opportunities in Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, DC. It's ever-changing. We're open to the UGC approach, so we try to open up forums for discussion to hear what our members want out of Girls in Tech, and do it.

Read more: The Most Influential Women in Technology

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8 Comments

  • Julia Russian

    Girls in Tech - hmm.. An interesting organization for Girls .. for Ssmart Girls! Many girls from Russia interested in this organization,I think so. Is there a branch of the "Girl in Tech" in Russia?

  • Elizabeth Watkins

    When I graduated from high school in 1961, I went into the Navy. During basic training they gave us a series of tests to help determine what rating they should put us in. I scored pretty well and it was determined that I should attend the most difficult school the Navy had at that point. I was sent to Electronics Technician “A” School at Great Lakes, Illinois. In 1961 they were only allowing 12 women a year into this nearly year long school. But now the Leading Chief of the same school is a woman. They told us while in school that if it was possible to grasp everything they tried to teach us in that training that we would have an equivalent of a Junior Degree in Electronic Engineering, but they didn’t think it could ever happen because it was so much. After I graduated, I was sent to the brand new Naval Air Station at Lemoore, California where I was one of 3 female ET’s in a division of 40 males. Guess who had the highest mechanical score in the division on those original Boot Camp tests? ME! After I finished my 4 years in the Navy, I went out into the workforce outside the military and could never find a job in electronics, only in Bookkeeping which I taken in high school.

    There was a woman in the Navy who during the years after WWII helped to create the first computer systems. She later trained many men in how to use these computers that she helped to build. She was named Grace Hopper and she was an Admiral when she finished her military service.

    As a genealogist, I now have the opportunity to teach other people how to use computers. I never had any training in that ability, I just taught myself and now I help to maintain the computers in the Family History Center.

    My 4 daughters set up their own computers and TV/Stereo systems while their husbands watch. These young men were never given the chance to learn anything like that. So, why is it impossible to imagine that women should be given the opportunities to learn things that someone thinks is beyond them?

  • Elizabeth Watkins

    I think it is interesting that the work force still hasn't quite grasped the idea of women in technology. When I graduated from high school in 1961, I went into the Navy. During Basic training we were given a series of tests to determine what rating we should be. I scored pretty high, so they decided I should attend the most difficult Navy school available at that time; Electronics Technician "A" School at Great Lakes, Illinois. At that point in time, the Navy only allowed 12 women a year into this school, but at least they let us have the opportunity. They told us that if it was possible for anyone to grasp everything they tried to teach us during that schooling we would have the equivalent of a Junior Degree in Electronic Engineering, but they realized that was probably impossible. When I finished the nearly year long training and was stationed at the Naval Air Station at Lemoore, California, I found myself one of three female ET's in a division of 40 males. Guess who had the highest mechanical score in the division? ME! Yet when my 4 years were finished in the Navy and I went to the workforce outside the military I was not able to find a job in anything but Bookkeeping, which I had only taken in high school. I always thought there was something very wrong in that picture. There was a woman in the Navy many years ago who helped create the first computer system, she then taught many men how to use the machines she helped create. She was named Grace Hopper and eventually became an Admiral. Now try to tell me that she had no business being a tech.

    Now as a genealogist, I find myself in the position of trying to teach people the skill that I taught myself - computer use. I help maintain the computers at the Family History Center and do a fairly good job of taking care of my own also. This is with no computer training at all.

    I just hate to see anyone short changed without being given a chance. My four daughters set up their own TV - Stereo systems, etc. while their husbands watch. In all cases it is because no one gave these young men the chance to learn anything like that. So, why can't people understand that some women were just not given the chance to learn.

  • Tyler Adams

    @Charley X, perhaps the reason that there isn't an equal distribution of men and women in Tech is not because of an intrinsic inferiority but rather that far too many people adhere to misogynistic biases that prevent our society from moving forward. You also don't see many female CEOs, black football coaches, gay politicians, et al. There are bigger issues at play. And get out of here with the flimsy "birds swimming" argument.

  • Guest

    Speaking of pseudo-science, Chris, I read the article to which you linked. While the "evidence" provided in the article was about as convincing as "global warming" I only need to direct you to reality: if women were equal to men, then there would be an equal distribution of men and women in technology. Since there isn't, your reasoning is obviously false.

    It's like saying that birds are just as capable as fish at surviving under water. Sure, you don't see any birds swimming around, but that doesn't prove anything, right?

  • Chris Dannen

    Charley X, there's no empirical evidence whatsoever that men have a better capacity than women in "math, logic, concentration, manual dexterity, leadership ability, and self-control." That's the kind of pseudo-scientific misogyny that the psychological community left behind in the 1960s.

    That's not to say that there aren't differences in the ways that men and women think, and it's important that we don't fool ourselves into thinking that male and female brains work exactly the same. Men seem to be better with visuo-spatial tasks, while women excel at verbal and memory-based tasks. Of course, both of these skills -- visuo-spatial and verbal/memory -- are necessary in writing code, designing interfaces, and other tech-industry imperatives. Check out this Scientific American article that addresses the issue extensively.

    http://www.sciam.com/article.c...

  • Vanessa Alvarez

    Being an analyst (frost&Sullivan) in the tech field, I can totally understand the challenges we face in a very male dominated industry. I love the fact that Fast Company has recognized Girls In Tech for their innovative spirit! Understanding the future of technology and how it affects the way we work and play is important and the fact that I can be part of making it happen makes all those late nights and challenging moments all the worth while!

  • Guest

    I think it's pretty clear that women should not be in tech. They simply don't have the intelligence for it. Women trail men in math, logic, concentration, manual dexterity, leadership ability, and self control. It takes a very special type of individual to succeed at technology, whether its a help desk worker or a CTO. There's a reason men dominate this field: we're far superior to women when it comes to technology.

    And I know there will be a lot of people who will want to decry my comment as sexist or ignorant, but I'm really not. I have great respect for women. They have the market cornered on domestic responsibilities. It's hard work to clean a house, do the laundry, and raise children. I tip my hat to the women who have the courage to fulfill their natural roles in society and do it with amazing skill and grace. But let's be honest: you wouldn't ask a man to do the ironing, and you wouldn't ask a woman to partition a hard drive.

    For you rare lady techs who do succeed in our industry, I just want to say that I fully support your lifestyle choice and I think your sexuality should be legally protected in this country. There's nothing wrong with who you are and what you do.