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SXSWomen: Panels, participation at Interactive festival show women making inroads, but men still dominate tech industry

Esther Robards-Forbes

Looking around the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, it's easy to see all the women in attendance, especially the abundance of young women, and all the female speakers and assume that things are getting better for women in the tech industry.

We've busted the glass ceiling. We're taken seriously now. Our representation is increasing in the industry, we say to ourselves.

Well, on that last one, we'd be wrong.

According to data provided by the U.S. Department of Labor and compiled by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, women represent 25 percent of the tech industry, and that number has been holding steady for several years. It's not a bad number, considering the traditionally male-dominated nature of the industry.

But it's not great, either, especially when the center points out that in the mid-1980s, women represented 37 percent of the field.

"Computing was new for everyone back then," the center's Jenny Slade said. "It was a newer field of study, and all the smart and interested parties were welcome."

Over time, though, women's involvement dropped and the industry gained a reputation as a boys' club.

But why?

The perception starts early, Slade said.

"I think a lot of young girls get turned off to computer science even though they have the chops for it because they perceive that tech jobs are where you sit in a cubicle all day and don't talk to anyone, when in reality it's about creativity and problem-solving," she said.

So, fewer women study computer science, and of those, fewer still will enter the industry, and of those, more than half will leave at midpoint in their careers, according to the center. Some will abandon the field altogether, and others will apply their skills to starting their own businesses or work in the government or nonprofit sectors.

Though women are starting about half of all small businesses in the U.S., the percentage of startup high-tech firms led by women is in the low single digits, according to labor department data compiled by the center. Women make up about 10 percent of venture capitalists, according to the Diana Project, a multi-university research series on women and business ownership, and anecdotally, the number of female tech venture capitalists is even lower.

Many women in the industry say they are not considered as closely for job openings, passed over promotions more often and not paid as much as their male counterparts. There are no female equivalents of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg to look up to. Overall, the environment is not always a friendly one, especially for startups.

"A lot of weird things and a lot of bad things happened that wouldn't have if I was a guy," said Kaplan, who sat on a panel about attracting more female-run startups. She said she quickly learned to take a male friend with her to meetings with potential angel investors. "I was put in some very awkward situations," but the environment has improved since then, she said.

Her fellow panelist, Alexa von Tobel, agreed. When she set out to start LearnVest, a popular website, online newsletter and boot camp program to teach women about personal finance, she was able to raise more than $1 million in seed money and $4.5 million within two months of launch.

"I didn't stop to think that I'm young or a woman," von Tobel, 27, said of the funding experience. "I was so focused on building the business that I wasn't worried about those other things."

Von Tobel chose a female venture capitalist not because she was woman, but because she felt she was the best to help build the business

"My confidence came from all the hard work I put in," von Tobel said. "It was going to take a force of nature to stop this from happening. Everything else, I just didn't have the bandwidth for."

But what about all the women at SXSW, and the festival's reputation as being one of the most female-friendly festivals in the industry?

That doesn't happen by accident. About 30 percent of the speakers and panelists at SXSW Interactive are women, said festival director Hugh Forrest, and it's been that way for three or four years. Festival organizers actively encourage diversity on panels and ask that women be placed on large panels where there are none. There are several panels devoted to discussing women in the industry, and meetups have been organized for female entrepreneurs.

"My impression is, when we have more female speakers, it makes it more friendly for women to be there," Forrest said. "I don't want to sound sexist, but when more women are here, more men want to be here." The typical male-dominated atmosphere at tech conferences is not good for anyone, male or female, he said.

Some of the female speakers can have a token feel to them, said Alexia Tsotsis, a writer for Tech Crunch speaking at the festival on women in the industry, but "if you didn't have them, it would be like an Apple event."

But why does it matter to have women in tech companies and in boardrooms? National Center for Women in Information Technology data indicate, and experts agreed, that diverse companies are more successful and bring products with wider appeal to the market.

The tech sector is expected to grow faster than any other sector of the economy between now and 2018, according to data compiled by the center, and is expected to outpace the supply of qualified tech professionals. Without involving more women, it might be impossible to fill those jobs, Slade said.

One of the solutions to attracting and retaining women in the field is networking.

Carla Thompson of Austin is hoping to contribute in this area with her company Sharp Skirts, a knowledge network for women in business that focuses on networking and training opportunities. Knowledge leads to confidence and confidence leads to opportunity, said Thompson, the host of a core conversation on women in technology at the festival.

"The two ways to solve the confidence problem is to increase their knowledge and get women a seat at the table," Thompson said.

Kaplan agreed and added, "We need to look at how we can create a community and support network of aspiring women entrepreneurs. I think it could be a game changer. It could change our whole industry."

Update: This story initially misstated the number of LearnVest subscribers.