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Why Women in Tech Matter Even More in the Midwest

Ugh. Another depressing article about the lack of women in tech? It’s true – gender equality is a hot button issue right now. Google “women in tech” and you’ll get thousands of articles with depressing stats on women in STEM and hundreds more offering tales of sexual harassment and gender inequality in Silicon Valley. If you’re working at a startup or an up-and-coming tech company, the media noise is more than enough to leave you feeling a little embarrassed by your industry and wondering where you can best enact positive change.

So what’s the good news?

As a “woman in tech” in the Silicon Prairie (specifically, the KC startup community), I’m actually pretty proud of the #girlpower I see around me. And I’m not alone: as it turns out, the Midwest is killing it at creating opportunities for women in tech. According to a recent analysis by SmartAsset, Kansas City was ranked one of the best cities in America for women in tech for the third year in a row, second only to Washington, D.C., based on higher-than-average job growth and pay.

Nationwide, women in tech jobs make an average of $0.85 for every dollar their male counterparts make, but not in KC. In fact, KC women in tech earn more, on average. (In 2015, the median pay for women and men in tech careers was $69,770 and $67,461, respectively.) Also topping the list of best places for women in tech to live and work were the Midwest technology hubs of Indianapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and St. Paul.

If you find these stats surprising, you’re probably not from flyover country. Midwestern women have long been known for pulling their own weight and fighting for equality in the workplace. Even those who opt for a more traditional role are expected to roll up their sleeves and work hard (think: “farmwife” rather than “housewife” – it’s a just a little less glam). In the Silicon Prairie community, women are forming their own entrepreneurial, supportive culture and driving game-changing technology innovation.

Celebrating our differences

Silicon Prairie women are creating tons of value in the technology sphere – literally. Researchers have long found ties correlating increased gender diversity with improved financial performance – meaning tech teams with women typically outperform those without.

Forming teams with a healthy gender mix requires finding women in the talent pool, and that can be a challenge in itself. At Red Nova Labs, I work with a myriad of women in tech roles, including programmers, designers, product managers, SEO specialists, and developers. And like many technologists, they come from diverse backgrounds.

“I was actually a physics teacher before I started my career as a programmer,” said Rachel Smith, software engineer at Red Nova Labs. “I read Parable of the Sower at a young age, and from then on, math and science were just fascinating to me. I especially liked physics, which led me to a double master’s degree in physics and education. I love learning, and the future of technology really excites me. I started teaching myself to code in my free time when I wasn’t teaching my students. Before long, it became an all-consuming passion.”

Rachel Smith, software engineer at Red Nova Labs

In a competitive startup environment where the best ideas win, having a gender-diverse group ensures the best idea has a seat at the table. In fact, companies with gender-diverse R&D teams were found to be more innovative. Diversity (in all forms) helps to deter groupthink and get everyone thinking outside the box.

“I think there are valuable aspects in the extremes of any dichotomy. The dichotomy that exists between the extremes of the gender gap is similar to that of the extremes between any majority and minority group,” said Smith. “Women’s voices should be considered particularly valuable in the realm of the engineering world, simply because of their historical scarcity. They bring a different point of view to the table that might not have been there otherwise. We should always be working to recognize and celebrate groups that we see being stifled within our community because that kind of focus on diversity is the special sauce that really helps startups stay on the leading edge of progress.”

Finding opportunities in the land of plenty

Since diversity in tech is so important, many nonprofit groups are working to inspire the next generation to pursue careers in computers. This endeavor is especially close to heart for Ashley Sullins, front end developer at Big 6 Media and attendee coordinator for Django Girls, a non-profit community that offers free programming workshops to provide tools, resources, and support to women interested in technology.

“Growing up as a girl in the Midwest, I didn’t know anyone who was a programmer, so it wasn’t a career I had ever considered until I started working with other developers after college,” said Sullins. “People have a misconception that software development jobs exist primarily on the west coast, such as Silicon Valley or Seattle. On the contrary, this area of the country is actually a huge hub for technical careers – in KC alone, we have Cerner, Garmin, and Sprint as our largest tech employers, as well as smaller software companies and agencies all over the metro.”

Sullins agrees with the A+ given to Midwestern tech community in SmartAsset’s recent scorecard. “Maybe I’ve just gotten lucky, but I’ve always been treated with respect by my coworkers on all of the tech teams I’ve worked on,” said Sullins. “I can’t speak for every company in the Midwest, but I personally haven’t experienced the ‘brogrammer’ culture that I’ve read about in articles regarding other tech companies outside of this region.”

Women mentoring women

With technology jobs growing like crazy, dozens of nonprofit organizations have stepped up to help facilitate personal growth and mentorship opportunities for women looking to break into the world of tech. Many of these programs (like CoderDojo KC and Coding and Cupcakes) are aimed at supporting the next generation of women in tech, introducing girls (and boys!) of all ages to coding in a fun, supportive environment.

Sullins says there is a high demand for technical education programs like Django Girls in the central United States.

“This year alone we received nearly 200 applications for our workshop from women all over the Midwest,” said Sullins. “Demand for these workshops is only going to increase as jobs become increasingly automated and the need for programming knowledge becomes a necessity in the workplace.”

All of these programs are aimed at making the Midwest a great place for women to grow their careers in technology, and for the most part, they’re totally free. Know an aspiring lady technologist in the heartland? Get her involved in one of these programs:

Really, this list is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many, many more local clubs, groups, and meetups offering mentoring opportunities for women interested in STEM, and that’s a great thing. Smith argues that the best way to get more women involved in tech is to encourage girls to code, well, like a girl.

“If you’re a woman, don’t try to code like a man. Look at problems from your point of view first. Take your unique skills and passions and use what you know about the world to best enact change. Play on your own strengths first, and then, if there is someone different than you who knows more than you about the subject, learn as much as you can from them. That’s where you find the best balance.”

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Jana Haecherl is a marketing communications specialist for Red Nova Labs dba storEDGE in Westwood, Kansas. She is a guest contributor to Silicon Prairie News.