When Betsy Ziegler was named the first female CEO of technology and entrepreneurship center 1871 in February, it didn’t immediately sink in for her what that designation would mean.
The more she spoke with female entrepreneurs, however, the better she understood.
“All of them were like, ‘The fact that they chose you … as a female to lead this organization is a massive sign of … commitment,’ ” said Ziegler, who previously was chief innovation officer at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “ ‘(1871 is) choosing the right person, regardless of what their gender is, to lead the organization forward.’ ”
Women such as Ziegler are moving into leadership roles in the tech industry, and the state’s largest public university is seeing more women majoring in computer science. But in Chicago and nationally, technology jobs overwhelmingly are dominated by men. Women in the industry say creating a path for more female leaders is an important step toward addressing many of the problems they face, from the lack of funding for companies they create to the lack of flexibility from employers when they pause their careers to start families.
There have been efforts to empower women in the tech world for years, and some expect the conversations about sexual harassment and gender discrimination sparked by the #MeToo movement to accelerate the cause. More companies have those issues on their radars. Networks of women in tech are growing, and they are working to reduce barriers for their peers.
In the Chicago office of Big Four auditor KPMG, Alex Bell, managing director in the insurance technology group, is working to find more female tech talent and propel the women already at the company into positions of power.
She launched a Women in Tech group at the firm 2½ years ago, and now it’s made up of more than 50 women in a range of positions, from partners to new associates. Men joined too.
“When we started this Women in Tech group, a lot of … male colleagues came to me and said, ‘What can I do?’ ” Bell said. “That, to me, says a lot.”
The group has had sessions with the recruiting team on how to find more women for tech roles. It has gone to a high school to talk to students about careers in technical fields and works with KPMG clients to launch similar initiatives in their own companies. Bell is creating a master list of group members’ areas of expertise so women can quickly find resources to help solve problems or build skills.
At Chicago-based Relativity, which makes software that analyzes data gathered during litigation, Jennifer Westropp, the company’s learning and development manager, started a leadership coaching program for female employees in November. The company hired a consultant to help them develop paths to executive roles.
The company was revamping its leadership development program, and women were asking for more resources on how to advance their careers, Westropp said. The pilot program includes eight women at the 829-person firm.
Software engineering manager Cindy Quendangen said it made her feel proud when she was approached about joining the program. But she hasn’t always felt comfortable being one of the few women in the room, a situation she’s faced ever since her college computer science classes.
“One of the big things that drives a lot of women out of tech is that they feel like they don’t belong,” Quendangen said.
In the past seven years, the share of technology-related jobs held by women across all industries in the Chicago area has barely budged, moving from 22 percent in 2010 to 22.4 percent last year, according to data from Downers Grove-based trade association CompTIA.
Nationally last year, women held 22 percent of tech jobs, including roles like systems analyst, software developer and web developer.
The percentage of all jobs in Illinois’ tech industry filled by women, including nontechnical roles, barely improved in recent years, rising to 34.1 percent last year from 33.8 percent in 2015, when CompTIA began tracking that data.
Many corporate boards and senior executive teams in the tech industry are mindful of diversity and have been for at least the past four or five years, said Sally Beatty, a partner in the Chicago office of recruiting and consulting firm Korn Ferry. In recent months, there has been more interest in reducing the gender gap in executive roles.
But it’s still a challenge to find women to fill those roles, said Beatty, who works with technology companies around the world on CEO and C-suite searches.
“There are more men in senior tech roles, which means there’s less of a pipeline of (women) to move up,” she said. “Change is really slow.”
Women in the industry see a variety of obstacles to achieving greater gender equality: Not enough funding goes to startups founded by women; too few girls are being encouraged to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math; and it’s hard for women to get back into technical occupations after taking time off to start a family.
For all the factors contributing to the problem, there are actions companies and leaders can take now to get more women involved in technology, said Julia Kanouse, CEO of the Chicago-based Illinois Technology Association. She is bullish on increasing the number of women in technology leadership roles and in better-paying positions — such as software engineering — at tech companies.
“You can’t keep kicking the can down the road and say, ‘It’s pipeline, it’s pipeline, it’s pipeline,’” she said. “Getting women into leadership roles can happen right now.”
At times, however, having strong and visible women in charge of technology teams or heading events isn’t enough, said Rumi Morales, a local entrepreneur and tech investor. She gave a talk earlier this year on blockchain, the software platform that powers bitcoin, and the women in attendance were vastly outnumbered by the men, Morales said. Some women still don’t feel comfortable or confident attending industry events, she said.
Morales, former head of CME Ventures, said she makes an effort to get more women to participate in financial technology events so women can see that Chicago has strong female leaders in the sector. She is on the advisory council for a group called Fintech Women, which works to attract women to the field. The formation of those types of groups is heartening, Morales said, but she’d like to see more women participating.
Ann Yeung, the new head of technology for Morningstar’s global retirement and workplace solutions group, started getting involved with women in tech initiatives a few years ago when she worked for Capital One. It was an awakening for her, and she realized she should not settle for being one of the few women in the room.
“It was like, ‘OK, this is the norm, but it really shouldn’t be the norm.
Why are we in this situation?’” she said.
Yeung, the mother of a 10-year-old daughter, said she tries to be a role model, since she’s seen many women leave midcareer to start families.
There is a growing awareness among companies of the need to accommodate new moms, which didn’t exist a decade ago when Yeung was a software engineer — and a new mom — at another company. She said she didn’t feel like she could discuss a more flexible schedule with her bosses.
“The first step to being able to make incremental change is to have this awareness and having people talking about it,” she said.
Despite the ongoing problem of underrepresentation, Chicago’s tech industry has become more welcoming toward women in recent years, and the cultural shift is noticeable, said Reva Minkoff, an 1871 member.
When she was launching her two digital marketing companies six years ago, “the tech scene was kind of a bro fest,” she said.
The founder of digital marketing companies Digital4Startups and DigitalGroundUp, Minkoff often was one of the few women at events. She received inappropriate comments at industry gatherings. Once, a man at an event took a photo of her dress without permission.
She hears fewer workplace stories that could just as well have happened in a frat house. “The good news is it’s gotten a lot better,” she said.
Efforts by coding schools, universities and others are tackling the talent pipeline issue.
Coding boot camp Fullstack Academy recently launched a track in Chicago that defers tuition for women until they land a job. The track is named for computer programming pioneer Grace Hopper, and the first group of eight students is set to graduate at the end of May.
At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which routinely ranks among the top engineering schools in the country, the percentage of undergraduate computer science majors who are women rose to almost 26 percent for the current school year, up from 12 percent four years ago.
Among startups spun out of Illinois universities in the past five years, 28 percent have a female founder, according to a recent report from the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition. That’s higher than the 16 percent of startups globally that have a women founder, according to Crunchbase, a tech company database.
At 1871, efforts to further the careers of female entrepreneurs predate Ziegler’s arrival. The WiSTEM program, which connects women with capital and tech resources, began in 2015 with 13 participants.
WiSTEM graduate Jamie Migdal said women in tech are focused on their work, but industry initiatives help bring attention the change they are creating.
“Once in a while we lift our heads up and say, ‘Oh, that’s cool; there are more of us.’ But let’s just keep working,” said Migdal, who founded FetchFind, which provides employee training to businesses that deal with animals.
While women in the industry see progress on several fronts, many say the lack of funding for the companies they create is a persistent challenge.
Only 0.2 percent of the nearly $2 billion in venture capital funding that flowed to Chicago-area companies last year went to ventures with only female founders, according to data from research firm Pitchbook. Companies with at least one female founder secured almost 31 percent.
Those numbers are “horrible,” said Dimitra Georganopoulou, director of commercialization at Northwestern University’s Innovation and New Ventures Office.
The tech industry is starting to pay attention to the lack of inclusion and all the problems that stem from it, said Terri Brax, co-founder of Women Tech Founders, or WTF — an abbreviation that isn’t accidental.
That wasn’t the case three years ago, when WTF launched.
“Women were kind of invisible in the whole startup space, even in tech overall,” she said.
Companies now are discussing how to turn their organizations into places where women can excel, Brax said. There’s a spirit of camaraderie among women that’s driving the change, she said, but there’s still work to be done.
“It’s like when you push a rock up a hill; (it’s) the first push that’s so hard, and you still have the whole damn hill,” Brax said. “But you’re moving.”