Decoding the gender gap

When the tech geeks are women.

Philadelphia Girl Geek Dinner at the Hacktory in University City on Thursday, January 31, 2013. The group discusses how they can boost gender diversity in the tech field. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )

When Patty Pickup, 54, started working in computer technology more than 20 years ago, the Drexel University software developer was a true rarity - one of the few females involved in a field that was overwhelmingly male.

"It was so professional. Everyone wore suits. It was more mathematical," she said. "It wasn't casual like it is today."

Since then, more women have joined the field and T-shirts and jeans have replaced business suits, but the gender gap remains in an industry sector where men outnumber women by a 2-1 ratio and where the women in the business struggle to avoid being marginalized.

Two years ago, Tristin Hightower and Nicole Kline, two women involved in technology, started the Philadelphia chapter of Girl Geek Dinners to address that very issue.

They were tired of finding themselves in the minority at tech functions.

Last week's meeting of Girl Geek Dinners, over pizza and salad, focused on the "why" behind the gap in a session titled "Hacking the Gender Gap: A Hands-On Workshop for Boosting Gender Diversity in Tech."

Hosted by the Hactory, a West Philadelphia geek-oriented nonprofit based at the University City Science Center, the session used a low-tech method to tease out the story.

The 20 women attending the event - most of them proficient in such languages as Java, iOS and HTML - wrote their experiences, both good and bad, on Post-it notes, pasted them on a wall, and then made comments on the statements.

"I'm the only girl in my IT department and I am the only one that schedules lunches," wrote one woman on a hot-pink note used to denote a negative experience in technology.

"I learned to write HTML," wrote another, recalling her experiences a dozen years ago, when she was a 17-year-old learning a programming language. "I didn't feel like my guy friends who also wrote code would want to talk to me about it."

The presenters, Amy Guthrie and Stephanie Alarcon, both involved in technology and the Hacktory, recapped studies that showed girls and boys equally enjoy technology early on, but that girls begin to withdraw from technology in middle school.

That leads, they said, to fewer women majoring in technology subjects, particularly computer science, and ultimately to the employment gap.

Scot Melland, chairman of Dice Holdings Inc., one of the world's largest online jobs sites for tech workers, said he can't explain why the gender gap exists, calling it cultural.

But, he said, women who do enter the field can command the same pay as their male counterparts, adjusting for experience and education.

"I think tech is one of the best places for women and other minorities to participate. Because you are dealing with technology and you are producing results, it is very clear what your performance is," he said.

"Recruiters do find it more difficult to fill roles with women and minorities," he said, citing a smaller pool of potential job candidates.

Part of that may be the workplace culture.

"When you are with a bunch of guys, they don't hear you anymore," one woman at Thursday's event said.

Others described struggling to gain respect for their tech prowess, even as men with less know-how were acknowledged as experts.

Hightower and Kline say they've noticed a change in the two years since they started Girl Geek Dinners.

In Philadelphia, they said, the atmosphere for women in technology has become more collegial.

There are several women's technology groups, and the women who circulate among them bring others along, enlisting men who are willing to help.

"The whole image of women here is light-years ahead of San Francisco," said Kate Krauss, executive director of AIDS Policy Project in Philadelphia. She just returned from a several-month stint in Silicon Valley, where she served as a communications and marketing director for a tech start-up.

"It is so old-fashioned and so male-dominated," she said of Silicon Valley.

"Philadelphia has a much more friendly environment and men who are happy to promote women and men," she said. "We have all the awesome technology that you care about and 100 percent less of the [sexist] nonsense."


Contact Jane Von Bergen at, @JaneVonBergen on Twitter, or at 215-854-2769. Read her workplace blog at