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I am woman, hear me code

Even in the seemingly progressive world of high tech, women face outdated stereotypes. Female-friendly incubators are giving them a space to thrive.

Author Cristina Rouvalis Illustration Scotty Reifsnyder

tech

When Elisa All launched iParenting Media back in 1996, she did so in almost total isolation, building her business at home with an infant. Eleven years later, she sold the online parenting publishing conglomerate to Disney for an undisclosed (but significant) sum, but that has done little to rid All of the sense that she remains on the margins of her chosen field.

“You feel like an anomaly,” she says of being a mother of two in the tech world. “It can be daunting.”

Only 10 to 15 percent of all entry-level jobs in tech are held by women, according to executive search firm Harvey Nash, and, barring a couple of colossal exceptions (COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer), female bosses are an even rarer occurence. As dispiriting as such statistics may be, says All, who’s currently working on video-streaming apps and a website for moms on the go, they don’t even begin to describe the difficulty female tech entrepreneurs encounter in trying to build their businesses. The networking events she attends usually resemble an old-boys club, she says, in which investors “throw money at the male tech superstars” and dismiss companies like hers as “fluffy women things.” But thanks to female-friendly incubators like the Chicago-based 1871, the 45-year-old All can talk to mentors, pitch investors and tap business resources in a way that was impossible before.

“You are plopped into a thriving community with other entrepreneurs,” she says. “I was accepted and welcomed here.”

Of the 240 startups at 1871, which investor and philanthropist J.B. Pritzker set up a couple of years ago, more than 25 percent include women among the founders, and this fall, the organization aims to boost those already impressive numbers with the launch of FEMtech, a program that will offer female entrepreneurs from around the world the financial and logistical support they’ll need to turn ideas into businesses.

A big part of the work FEMtech will do as it develops is help women with children balance work and family commitments. Networking events, for example, will be scheduled at midday rather than the conventional late-afternoon happy hour. “The end of the day is a horrible time if you are a parent,” says Howard Tullman, 1871’s CEO.

This family-friendly approach is a rarity in the “bro-gramming” world of Silicon Valley—where you are far more likely to encounter a foosball table than a nursery.  In fact, even in this supposedly progressive milieu, caveman attitudes are rife. “This can be a very difficult place for women,” California-based employment attorney Kelly M. Dermody says of Silicon Valley. “They are often not given credit on work, are excluded from networking, are sexually harassed. Many leave.”

Women may be at a disadvantage in the tech field long before they set foot in the workplace. Studies show girls’ propensity to shy away from math and science begins in elementary school and continues through college. In 2012, for example, women received 57 percent of all undergraduate degrees in the U.S., but only 12 percent of the computer science degrees awarded by major research universities.

And yet, as Tullman puts it, the “dirty little secret of tech startups” is that you don’t necessarily need a computer science degree. “You don’t have to geek out,” he says. “No one is doing machine code. You need to devote resources to design and user interface. There is no reason why women cannot play a more significant role.” This is certainly true of All, who studied journalism in college and had a freelance writing and editing business before launching her startups.

For All, the beauty of FEMtech is that it will allow her to share her insights and experiences with women who face the same problems she has encountered since she entered the field 18 years ago. And one of the first messages she wants to impart is that hers is not so much a story of female empowerment as it is one of good business sense.

Cristina Rouvalis, a Pittsburgh-based writer, is considering learning how to code.

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