Framed by a LEGO guitar and robotic vehicle, Rheanne Walton and Emma Howard anxiously review notes at their podium as dozens of technology experts await their pitch.
The middle-school students are visiting the Kansas City Developers Conference to share the story of their all-girl robotics team, MindSTEM, and how it competes in the FIRST LEGO League. The league, which challenges youth to create and program LEGO robots, is dominated by males, offering Howard and Walton an early demographical lesson on the current state of the tech industry they plan to enter.
Howard acknowledges that she’s faced challenges in her early tech pursuits, including pressure to chase different interests.
“STEM has always been portrayed as a guy thing and we’re trying to change that,” she said. “Peer pressure is not easy, but if you’re really passionate about something you’re not going to let someone take that away from you.”
The MindSTEM team and other tech groups leveraged the Kansas City Developer Conference, which took place June 24 to June 26, to not only plant seeds for more women to enter technology, but also as an event to highlight a local tech community for women.
KCDC co-director Jon Mills said that while the conference doesn’t track the gender of attendees, he said 2015 was among their best for female turnout. Over the years, Mills said that the conference’s female speakers have spurred other women to offer their insights.
“We have been lucky to have several brilliant female speakers,” he said. “Over the years, they have inspired other female developers to grow and speak themselves. We make a point of reaching out to the strong female developers we know about and encourage them to take on a speaking role at the event.”
Other groups in the area such as KC Women in Technology aim to create a safe place and community for women, which tends to help with retention at companies. KC WIT offers such programs as CoderDoJo, Coding & Cupcakes and Coding & Cocktails to engage women of all ages to learn more about technology.
Kaitlin Motley, a KC WIT board member, said that in addition to improving a woman’s career experience, the industry as a whole benefits from more diversity.
“There’s some drop off in technology for women if you enter the field and find out you’re the only one there,” Motley said. “It will never be the strongest industry if it’s only one world view, or only one type of person. So the more diversity — women, minorities, veterans, all age groups — the better it is for any industry.”
But despite more grassroots and national efforts than ever, studies have found that fewer women are entering the fields of computing and mathematics. In 2013, women held only 26 percent of computing jobs in the United States, down from 35 percent in 1990, according to a study by the American Association of University Women.
In Kansas City, however, the situation is a little rosier. The City of Fountains recently ranked as the No. 2 best city for women in technology, according to a study by financial tech firm SmartAsset.
Women fill nearly 33 percent of tech jobs in Kansas City, the study reports. Further, Kansas City is one of only two major cities in which women in tech are paid the same as or more than men, as the area features a 106 percent female-to-male earning ratio.
Despite the solid performance Motley said more could be done to instill diversity. KC WIT and other organizations can always use guidance from more seasoned experts, particularly women.
“There’s always a need for more mentors,” she said. “Mentors are the role models for young kids to continue pursuing a tech career, and if there are few women there, that’s a loss. The more women we can get as mentors, hopefully the more women we can get in tech.”
To learn more on local women in technology, check out this video from our media partner, Kansas City Public Television: