Wonder Women Tech takes on the industry’s gender imbalance at Playa Vista’s famed Spruce Goose hanger

By Gary Walker

Tech-industry superwoman illustration by comic-book artist Rafael Navarro

Tech-industry superwoman illustration by comic-book artist Rafael Navarro

(Click here to read about three local women that made it in tech)

The thriving digital technology sector has changed much about the way the world does business, but it’s taken that old glass ceiling into the 21st century.

When it comes to careers in tech — particularly lucrative software engineering jobs and company leadership roles — women are vastly underrepresented.

Gender diversification lags like dial-up Internet at some of the biggest names in the digital economy.

Women make up 30% of Google’s overall workforce but hold just 17% of Google’s tech-specific jobs, according to data the company has published online. Women account for 37% of Yahoo employees but fill only 15% of the company’s tech-specific jobs. At Twitter, women filled only 10% of technical roles as of last year.

Other industry players follow suit. A widely publicized study by Pinterest software engineer Tracy Chou counted 7,531 male and 1,158 female software engineers at 84 tech companies — a ratio of only about 13% women.

Keeping women in tech jobs, meanwhile, has been as much of a challenge as getting them there.

As far back as seven years ago, a study by the Harvard Business Review found that up to half of the women who attain tech-specific jobs eventually abandon them due to unsupportive or even hostile work environments. Personal anecdotes published in legacy and online media corroborate an unwelcoming atmosphere.

This weekend it’s the ladies who are in charge, however, at the Wonder Women Tech networking and career development conference in Playa Vista, featuring speaking engagements and panel discussions by nearly 50 female industry luminaries and a collaborative 36-hour Hackathon for software developers.

Catering to female computer engineers, graphic or industrial designers, digital marketing specialists and tech-field entrepreneurs, the event takes place inside the historic airline hangar where Howard Hughes built his Spruce Goose.

The location is dead-center for the Westside’s burgeoning technology sector — Google (reportedly interested in leasing the hangar from owners the Ratkovich Company) is building a new Southern California headquarters on 12 acres next door, and Yahoo is moving its offices from Santa Monica to a creative office complex a stone’s throw away.

Hosted by Los Angeles city officials (Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Councilman Mike Bonin and City Controller Ron Galperin are expected to make appearances), Wonder Women Tech is the brainchild of Lisa Mae Brunson, founder of Equality TV, a multimedia platform that highlights marginalized and underrepresented communities and topics.

“We are all pioneering women and we will see a great example of women being innovators, transforming things into the digital space that we never thought of doing before,” Brunson said. “We need to create an ecosystem where women are supporting women.”

‘Confront it head-on’

This is the second Wonder Women Tech event for Brunson, the first taking place last year in Long Beach as part of the California Women’s conference. While men are welcome to attend, Brunson said she’s heard repeatedly from women that it is critical to maintain an environment for women to discuss challenges and celebrate accomplishments in the tech world.

“When we started putting this together, one of the comments that we’ve heard was women really need a forum like this because we’re really not feeling supported [within technology circles]. It’s still a man’s world out there,” Brunson said.

Event speaker Jessica Greenwalt, founder of the San Francisco digital design firm Pixelkeet, has confronted sexism in the industry head-on. Once advised to hire a male figurehead to insure her company was taken seriously, Greenwalt, 29, recalls several occasions where professional meetings with men turned into unwelcomed sexual advances.

Rather than try to flee the situation, she advises women to take the upper hand.

“Confront it head-on. You don’t learn anything and they don’t learn anything if you shut down the conversation. I’m not afraid to ask guys tough questions when they’re putting me in an uncomfortable situation. I put them in an awkward situation where they have to look at themselves in the mirror and confront why they’re behaving that way,” Greenwalt said.

Though the tech industry developed into a boys club, things didn’t start off this way, said event speaker Karen Catlin, an independent consultant who advocates for women in the tech industry and works with major tech firms to improve gender diversity and hiring practices.

Catlin, formerly a vice president at Adobe Systems, earned a computer science in the mid-1980s, when many more women sought such degrees.

“There used to be a lot of women in tech. In 1985, 37% of computer science graduates were women. It’s less than half of that now,” Catlin said. “The root of the problem is there are fewer and fewer women entering the field.”

That was a time before home or office computers went mainstream, and those who entered the field rarely had any experience with them. But in recent years, said Catlin (who delivered a TEDx talk on the subject), boys latch on to gaming and computer programming early, while girls who try to break into the discipline in their teens often find themselves among few female peers and at a disadvantage when it comes to experience.

Greenwalt would consider herself an exception to that scenario. She said being immersed in tech early geared her toward entrepreneurial thinking and turned her off from highly controlled corporate work, where she believes “men are paid according to their potential; women according to what we’ve achieved.” She recounts being able to earn a raise from a corporate tech gig only after proving herself and threatening to leave.

The entrepreneurship route has become increasingly available for women as venture capital firms, in an attempt to understand women’s consumer habits, have begun to include women as general partners who get a vote on which ideas get funded, said event speaker Anna Zornosa.

Zornosa founded Ruby Ribbon, a social commerce apparel company based in the Bay Area, after holding industry positions that included serving as a vice president at Yahoo.

“Twenty years ago I probably couldn’t have gotten this company funded, but two things have changed: Silicon Valley now understands that a majority of customers who make buying decisions are women, and social media is particularly powerful at reaching them,” she said.

Role models needed

Brunson said cracking the “digital glass ceiling” remains a major obstacle for women, perhaps only circumvented by taking the entrepreneurship route.

“Everything that I’ve done has been an opportunity that I’ve created for myself,” she said. “Women often feel like we’ve been restricted to human resources or marketing in many of these companies.”

Greenwalt said she believes the climate for women in tech has improved drastically, however, since women like Brunson have raised the issue to the forefront of public discussion.

“In the last three years alone the culture has gotten so much better, which is reassuring. I want the young women out there to know that it is getting better and they can get into tech without being treated like we were back in the day,” she said.

Hatel Bhakta, co-founder of the Long Beach-based digital marketing and brand innovation agency Creative Intellects, said Wonder Women Tech is a vehicle for women to explore their talents as creative thinkers and digital entrepreneurs.

“It’s a great time to be in this industry because of the way that it’s evolving and the opportunity for innovation. There are opportunities for women to use their creative insight and innovative platforms to forge their own career paths,” said Bhakta, a graduate of Loyola Marymount University in Westchester.

Bhakta will moderate a panel titled Fashion Forward Technology and speak about social media branding, innovation and marketing.

“One of the reasons that I wanted to be involved with Wonder Women Tech is because we need to have role models in these fields so [other women] can see that there are women in these high-profile positions,” said Shannon Hematian, who is also speaking at the tech conference.

The co-founder of El Segundo-based Pip Tompkin Studio, an industrial design firm specializing in consumer electronics, Hematian has created projects for clients such as Dell, Microsoft, Twitter, Toshiba, iRobot and Vizio.

“I think this event can be a great showcase for women in technology and one of the things that I hope to do at Wonder Women Tech is to inspire people to become an entrepreneur,” she said.

Speaker Audrey Bellis said that, as a Latina, she hopes those who attend Wonder Women Tech will also understand that it is important to retain ethnic diversity among women in tech. Bellis runs Indie Desk, a tech startup co-working space in downtown Los Angeles.

“I’m hoping to use this event as an opportunity to talk about our co-working space and to about how women and minorities are underrepresented in tech jobs,” said Bellis.

Brunson said the moment is ripe for female innovators to push their way into the industry.

“What I really love about our team and our speakers is that there is a wide range of diversity. I’ve discovered new role models during the time that I’ve been planning this event,” she said.

Brunson added that the Westside’s blossoming Silicon Beach tech corridor seems like more intrinsically fertile ground for women.

“It seems like there’s more of a community feel in Silicon Beach,” she said. “This is a timely movement and I’m excited to see how far we can go with it.”

Holding the event in Playa Vista also feels right.

“It’s an area that’s really booming with high-tech companies. What better way to kick off this initiative than to be where the next stage of technology is going to be?” Brunson said.

Wonder Women Tech begins Friday night and continues through Sunday at The Hangar, 5865 Campus Center Drive, Playa Vista. See wonderwomentech.com for event and registration information.

Editor Joe Piasecki contributed to this story.