In the technology industry, where the workforce skews overwhelmingly male, Kansas City apparently is becoming one of the more welcoming cities for women in computer sciences.
Women hold about a third of the jobs in the tech industry in Kansas City, according to a recent study from technology financial company SmartAsset. That’s slightly higher than the 26 percent national rate. Not only that, but women earn on average $60,219 compared with $49,706 nationwide, in figures adjusted for housing costs.
While the gender ratio in Kansas City remains heavily lopsided toward men, local women are not sitting idly by to watch that gap stagnate.
In the last two years, women have started several initatives in Kansas City designed to encourage women to join the tech industry and engage women who are already there.
Kansas City Women in Technology, founded two years ago, offers programs such as sHeroes, which matches junior high girls with tech mentors, and Coding and Cocktails, a meetup where women can learn programming skills over drinks. Kansas City Women in STEMM provides support to women in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine.
Last year, two Cerner engineering directors began a chapter of the nonprofit Girl Develop It in Kansas City, through which they teach computer and coding classes for women every other month. More recently, in early July the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City began an internal group called the Women in Technology Community of Practice.
Studies show that the gender gap is neither good for women, nor for business. Teams of both men and women translate into higher collective intelligence, which could lead to better productivity and financial returns, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Science.
The SmartAsset report and rankings put Kansas City No. 2, behind only Washington, D.C. Kansas City was one of only two cities, along with Arlington, Texas, where women in tech actually earned more than their male counterparts. The area’s average salary, affordability and relatively high percentage of women in the tech workforce also helped.
Many local women working in the industry noted the area’s Midwestern friendliness, in contrast to a well-publicized harsher business climate in California’s Silicon Valley.
“A lot of people stay in the area to be close to family, and so it tends to attract people for whom family is important,” said Michelle Brush, programming director at Cerner and co-founder of Girl Develop It.
But even so, women believe that these initiatives will continue to even out the playing field.
The fight to even out the tech playing field is a lifelong crusade, lasting from girls’ first encounter with the computers and persevering even after women have made a mark in their careers.
The first step is to encourage girls’ interest in computer science as early as elementary school and expose them to role models, women who work in technology.
“Role models are very important,” said Karen Pennell, senior vice president of the information technology and financial services division at the KC Fed.
Indeed, role models provide guidance to girls who may not otherwise be able to picture themselves as programmers or website designers. They may also demystify the practice of coding, which is much more analytical and enterprising than simply entering numbers into a computer.
Coding and Cupcakes, a Coding and Cocktails’ little sister, is an effort to get girls excited about coding and connect them with role models. Mothers and daughters come to sessions held by KC Women in Tech where they meet mentors and learn how to build a website, cupcakes provided.
University: an uphill battle
But even after girls’ interest is piqued, that curiosity can subside in middle and high school. When women graduate, they often settle on another career choice.
Only 18 percent of computer science majors were women in 2011. That percentage has dropped since its peak in 1985, when women represented 37 percent of computer science majors.
The sheer number of men occupying seats in a technology course can make walking into the classroom an intimidating task for many women.
“The classes keep getting smaller the further you go into your schooling years,” said Denisse Osario de Large, an engineering director at Cerner who co-founded Girl Develop It in Kansas City. “And the number of women gets even smaller too.”
Keeping women in tech
Still, if women choose a profession in computer science, that does not necessarily mean a victory for the entire campaign. The last battle, to stay in the profession, stretches throughout a woman’s career.
Women are leaving the tech industry in droves, and de Large is concerned about the reasons for their departure.
“Contrary to a lot of people’s beliefs, it’s not that they’re stepping outside of being professionals,” she said. “It’s just that they’re moving to another profession.”
The research backs her up. A study from the Harvard Business Review from 2012 found that rather than leaving the industry to care for children, 50 percent of women working in STEM industries will eventually leave because of a hostile work environment.
More than 60 percent of women also felt pressure to provide extra evidence to prove their competence multiple times, according to another study from the University of California Hastings College of the Law. Minority women had it worse. Seventy-seven percent of black women reported the same problem.
The study also found that almost 50 percent of black and Latina women were mistaken for administrative or custodial staff, compared with 32 percent of white women.
Brush said although that bias was less flagrant in Kansas City than on the East Coast or in Silicon Valley, it still manifests itself in subtle ways.
“It’s like a series of paper cuts,” she said. “It’s not that women are being treated horribly. It’s just that when you have the ratio such that you’re so outnumbered, the organization as a whole can start making assumptions that make people who don’t fit into those assumptions feel less included.”