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Can ​Omaha be​ ​the​ ​most​ ​women-friendly​ ​tech​ ​community in​ ​the​ ​U.S.?

Rebecca Stavick leads the first meeting of Project 18

What if Omaha, Nebraska could establish itself as a woman-friendly tech hub and draw brilliant STEM professionals from across the country to relocate to the heart of the Silicon Prairie?

That’s the question Rebecca Stavick is asking the city’s business community, politicians and advocates.

“A few months ago I wrote an article on medium.com and talked about retaining and attracting tech talent in Omaha,” said Stavick, Executive Director of Do Space. “In this article, I talked briefly about attracting and retaining tech talent, and I thought, instead of just saying we need to boost the tech community or bring more techies here, wouldn’t it be a lot smarter to find a very specific niche and try to move the needle on that.”

Stavick wants that niche to be women.

A quick internet search of “Silicon Valley sexism” brings up countless national news articles dated as recently as three weeks ago, outlining the reality of being a female tech worker in the region. Some articles even going so far as to suggest ways the Valley can clean up it’s ‘“embarrassing” sexism problem.

Stavick has read plenty of those articles too and wondered if there was an opportunity for Omaha to not only improve the lives of women in the city but also succeed at something that the country’s most famous tech center is failing at.

“There’s an opportunity to not only improve the lives of women in tech here in Omaha but also be a tech hub for women across the whole country and do something really well that Silicon Valley is not doing well,” said Stavick. “We could be a haven for all that incredible female tech talent.”

Stavick sent out a tweet asking if anyone would be interested in attending a women-in-tech get together focused on launching a group to tackle the problem and start working on solutions. Over 60 people RSVPd to the group’s first meeting Tuesday night, with more than 80 joining the Slack channel.

“It’s really grassroots, just talking about what needs to happen, who we are, whiteboarding,” said Stavick. “This is a movement that people can get involved in remotely. You don’t have to come to meetups and do a lot of in-person work if you’re too busy for that.

Stavick named the movement Project 18, a working title referencing Omaha’s 18th place ranking on SmartAsset’s 2017 list of the best cities for women in tech.

Omaha is tied with San Francisco when judged on factors such as gender pay gap, four-year tech employment growth and tech jobs filled by women––24% according to the chart. Stavick knows there are barriers to bringing that number up to at least 50% and that huge change will take time, but she believes that smaller degrees of change can happen faster.

“For the past few decades, young women have not been encouraged to get into technology and that certainly is one of many challenges that we face now,” said Stavick. “It’s a very complicated issue but I feel like if we take a look at where we’re at and we incentivize positive change by partnering up with tech companies and people who employ tech workers, I think that this is something we can [improve upon] on in the next year or two.”

That change will require tangible steps, not just talk.

“The very first thing that we need to do is launch a survey to measure two things in Omaha,” said Stavick. One is, what are the policies and procedures that employers have already implemented in Omaha to create a more woman-friendly environment. […] The second part of that is speaking with women who work in tech in Omaha and asking them about how they feel about it.”

Surveying things like paid maternity leave, women’s leadership development programs, special training to help women succeed and cultural attitudes and observations will help establish a baseline for where the city is already at.

“That can really help us identify things we’re not even thinking of as posible projects, and also really help the employers in Omaha get a better sense of how women in tech feel,” said Stavick.

Changing the culture of an entire city is a tall order that can’t be accomplished without the support and partnership of everyone involved in the industry. That’s something Stavick realizes and she’s calling on all of Omaha’s STEM community to raise a hand and commit to Project 18’s mission.

“There’s so many women leaving tech because they can’t move up, because they face sexism on the job. […] If we’re really going to make things happen, we need partners and we need everyone (all the companies, nonprofits, government, the chamber) to have a stake in this.”

Project Scope: Women + Tech + Omaha

Women.
Our project exists to create positive change for women and femme-identified individuals working in
technology.

Tech.
Valuing and supporting the impact of women technologists not only strengthens our entire tech community, it also increases opportunities for economic growth and sustainability.

Omaha.
Our focus is on the Omaha metro area. We believe that by creating positive change for Omaha, we will help transform our city from good to great.

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Christine McGuigan is the Managing Editor of Silicon Prairie News

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