Is Ann Arbor's tech industry welcoming to women?

As a woman working in the tech field, Ronda Bergman is something of a rarity.


The 48-year-old fell in love with tech when one of her college counselors pushed her to take a programming class. Outside the joy of the work itself, however, her past 18 years working as a programmer haven't always been professional bliss. From a programming professor who treated her differently than her male classmates to awkward, all-male workplaces, being a female developer — even in progressive Ann Arbor— has been a challenge.


"I actually had the owner of one company tell me he almost didn't hire me because I was a woman," Bergman says.


Women hold just 25 percent of computing jobs, and recent news has highlighted the prevalence of toxic work environments for those women in some of the biggest tech companies. But here in Ann Arbor, Bergman says, things are actually getting better for women in tech.


"It's definitely improved. There's much more acceptance," she says. "It varies depending on the company, but the bigger companies are definitely improving."


How Ann Arbor measures up


Bergman is uniquely positioned to understand how the Ann Arbor tech community is progressing in terms of gender diversity — or at least in its acceptance of the idea of gender diversity. In addition to being a software artisan for Pillar Technology, she is the cofounder and leader of Ann Arbor's chapter of Girl Develop It (GDI), which organizes tech training and networking opportunities for local women. Of nearly 60 GDI chapters nationwide, Ann Arbor is behind only New York and San Francisco when it comes to revenue, number of students, and support from local businesses.


"Every year the GDI chapters get together and we often have people say, 'What's the secret? Why is Ann Arbor so successful?'" Bergman says. "We have more companies willing to host classes than we can even use.


"Even the companies that are struggling with their numbers [of female employees] reach out to us because they want to help. They say, 'Let us help you so we can have women to hire.'"


Avery Williamson has lived in Ann Arbor working as a delivery lead for Atomic Object for just three months. But already the local tech community feels different to her from her hometown of Philadelphia and other tech hubs with which she's familiar.


"I feel like it's a very open, inclusive, positive tech environment. It's not quite as competitive," Williamson says. "Maybe that's a Midwestern attitude."


Local companies making changes


Of course, an attitude of inclusion is different from inclusion in practice. Bergman says small local companies are still apt to have just one or no women among their ranks. But the larger companies, she says, tend to be improving.


Pillar, Bergman's employer, is now 21 percent female. About a third of Ann Arbor-based Duo Security's more than 450 employees, and about 30 percent of its leaders, are female.


It's not an accident. Duo offers generous benefits intended to support employees' family lives, professional development, and ambitions outside of work. These efforts are intended to disrupt an industry plagued by a narrow set of talent by being "kinder than necessary." This core value happens to help Duo attract and retain women — and meet its business goals.


"We believe if you do the right things, you get the right results," says Duo Security CEO Dug Song. That result is creating a better product by having genuine empathy for their diverse set of customers. "That degree of empathy is hard to come by unless you have an ability to integrate many different perspectives, experiences, frameworks, and world views within your organization."


Grand Rapids-based Atomic Object is making a concerted effort to increase the gender diversity of its workforce, including its Ann Arbor office. While the company used to have just one woman among 20 employees, it is now up to 15 women among 60.


While only three of Atomic Object's 15 Ann Arbor employees are women, the company's female hiring initiative continues. Atomic Object has reworded job descriptions and changed its benefits to better appeal to women, and the company has also started a two-year career development program that has attracted an outsized number of female participants.


These types of mentorship opportunities seem to not only help attract, but also retain, female employees. Pillar has been successful with an apprenticeship program, as well as looking for employees among non-traditional candidates, such as those who have completed GDI courses or training programs like Grand Circus Detroit. Because many women go into tech as a second career, Bergman says these are excellent sources of female tech talent.


Ann Arbor women supporting Ann Arbor women


Tech CEOs aren't the only ones focused on increasing the numbers of women in tech locally. Ann Arbor women are working to support each other. While attracting women to the tech field is one challenge, those women may still wind up in careers in which they feel isolated and unsupported by their employers.


Bergman attributes her career longevity to stubbornness, but she hopes a new generation of female tech workers won't have to grin and bear an unfriendly industry – hence her commitment to GDI.


"There are women who come out and are feeling frustrated with their situation, and you sometimes have to talk them off of the ledge," she says. "To have someone else say, 'What you're feeling is normal. We've experienced it as well,' that can just be huge. If we can help keep a few women from leaving the field, I think we are doing our job."


The logic is that the more women there are in Ann Arbor's tech scene, the more women the community will attract. More women in high tech leadership positions is a key piece of that strategy. That's one reason why Duo regularly invites nationally recognized female tech leaders to its monthly Tech Talks series, which is open to the community. Representation in leadership matters.


Bergman is proving that out, closer to her own home. As rare as being a 20-year female veteran of the tech industry is, Bergman is now something even rarer: one half of a mother-daughter pair of tech pros. Because her daughter Erin was raised in a home where technology was just Mom's job, the field was naturally attractive from an early age. Erin and Ronda now work at Pillar together.


The Ann Arbor tech community certainly hasn't achieved diversity nirvana. While awareness of the need for more women in tech is increasing, many local companies still have few or no women among their ranks. Diversity of race, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation are often lagging behind even gender diversity.


But Williamson says the community is at least moving in the right direction.


"What excites me about Ann Arbor is that it seems like there is a critical mass of people who are interested in change and interested in making it a more inclusive place to live and to work," she says. "I think change around women in tech is going to happen at the people level. It's not going to happen in board rooms or huge edicts."


From female tech pros supporting each other to local companies making efforts to retain more women, it seems that's exactly how the change is happening in Ann Arbor.

Natalie Burg is Concentrate's senior writer.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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