by Matt Shaw // from 904 Magazine, December 2014
In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama received one of his biggest applause lines when he talked about the wage gap.
“Today, women make up half of our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment,” the President said.
Shortly thereafter, reports exposing income inequality between men and women in the President’s own office—while better than the average at around 88 cents on the dollar—crystallized the point: there is work to be done to ensure women are treated equally in the workplace.
As the leader of the free world struggles with the wage gap in the White House, business leaders in the technology industry face their own inequitable landscape. Studies show that women are responsible for creating only three percent of tech startups. When they do start tech companies, women receive only 10 percent of venture capital funding.
Numbers like these have sparked outrage within tech communities across the country. Fuel was added to the fire recently when several big Silicon Valley companies released diversity reports showing a vast disparity in employment between men and women. Microsoft’s report, for example, shows that women only made up 17 percent of their tech workforce.
As technology has become a driving force in the worldwide economy, there are more and more people trying to get underneath the issues surrounding women in the industry. That means not only trying to get more women involved, but also changing a culture from the inside.
Spencer Pitman has worked in technology startup hubs like San Francisco, Boulder, New York, and Boston and has written extensively on issues regarding diversity within tech communities. He says the tech industry defaults to the patterns and rhythms of our larger patriarchal society.
“In the blossoming age of technology and the Internet, we naturally empower men more to experiment and become leaders,” Pitman says. “And then we socialize women to feel less confident in pursuing math and science, and less comfortable being vocal.”
He says the Internet, though it is often seen as a platform for giving equal weight to all voices, is dominated by intensely negative terminology about gender. “Get on any tech-related message board and you’ll see that femininity is constantly being used as an epithet.”
Pitman thinks that having open and honest conversations about diversity is important. “We need a better understanding of intersectionality and that means taking a more nuanced view of the differences that exist when people come from different backgrounds,” Pitman says. “At this point, there is just an insufficient dialogue about how men contribute to these problems.”
Pitman feels that men can do a lot to improve the situation, but thinks, on a pragmatic level, listening and being open-minded can go a long way. “The truth is [as men] it’s not our place to center women or any marginalized group,” he says. “We need to get out of the way for them to center themselves on their own terms."
If there was anything (or
anyone) in the way of Raquel Steffens, cofounder of bucketwish.com, she was too driven, or too optimistic, to see it. “I’ve always been a glass is half full kind of person,” she says. “By nature, I’m very positive.”
Raquel’s positive demeanor in the face of challenges and tireless effort has helped bucketwish.com become one of the city’s most talked about startups. The website and application, which connects users (who make wish-lists for special items) to friends or businesses who grant the wishes, grew by 25 percent following last year’s One Spark festival. Bucketwish’s newest efforts are getting non-profits involved. Now, according to Steffens, corporations and individuals can fulfill the wish lists of their favorite charities.
Visiting thriving tech communities in places like Seattle and New York has convinced Steffens that leaders in Jacksonville’s tech scene would benefit from working together. “For [Jacksonville’s startup] community to grow,” she says, “We need unity and collaboration.”
She thinks women can lead the way. “Businesses here are so competitive, and not so open, traditionally,” Steffens argues. “Women, I think are great force for collaboration, so we can help change the culture here.”
To encourage startups to work together, Steffens started a group called Tech Founders Jax. The group was designed to provide guidance and networking opportunities to tech entrepreneurs in area. Steffens says the group already has 12 members, 5 of whom are women. “It’s wonderful to have multiple perspectives from people of all different backgrounds,” she says.
Perhaps because Steffens and her two partners capitalized bucketwish.com themselves, the company has yet to face some of the obstacles other female founders have come across when seeking outside funding. Though they aren’t there yet, Steffens says there will come a time when bucketwish.com will need venture capital. As always, she’s optimistic. “There will always be hurdles, whether you are a man, woman, black, white, whatever,” she says. “The best thing men and women can do is to be supportive of each other.”