Coding at the 2015 Hack the Gap hackathon, courtesy of Hack the Gap.

Breaking into the tech industry’s boys’ club

Programs advocating for women in tech in Minnesota are building momentum

By Brian Martucci
Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The IT industry’s lack of gender diversity isn’t a Minnesota-only problem, and it won’t be solved in Minnesota alone. But momentum appears to be building behind Minnesota-based advocates for women in tech. Thanks to their efforts, the industry’s notorious boys’ club finds itself under serious threat.

Two recent announcements deserve special mention. First, Advance IT Minnesota recently released the names of 30 winners and runners-up in its annual 2016 Minnesota Aspirations for Women in Computing awards, which honors high-performing high schools “based on their interests, accomplishments, and community involvement in computing and technology, as well as for their aspirations in computing and technology-related fields.”

The winners and runners-up earn job shadowing and internship opportunities at participating Minnesota businesses. Participating businesses also sponsored two $4,000 scholarships to Century College and St. Cloud State University, available to two winners.

The Aspirations awards also recognized Thomas Reinartz, a Rosemount High School computer science educator who’s overseen an ambitious expansion of his district’s IT education program. He’ll receive his honors alongside the high school winners and runners-up on April 19 at the Vadnais Heights Commons.

The winners of the 2015 Minnesota Aspirations for Women in Computing awards, courtesty of Advance IT Minnesota.

Talented students like the latest crop of Aspirations winners and runners-up, along with dedicated educators like Reinartz, are doing more than what they love. They’re taking ownership of Minnesota’s economic future — addressing the looming skills gap and keeping up with employer demand for tech talent. If current trends hold, says Advance IT Minnesota, American graduates are projected to fill just 39% of the 1.2 million computer specialist job openings expected for 2022.

To fill the other 61%, American employers need to hire foreign graduates in greater numbers — uncertain at best in the current political climate — or somehow accelerate the rate at which U.S. universities graduate qualified IT professionals.

That’s a fanciful prospect without additional support for women IT workers, who currently comprise just 26% of the computer specialist workforce. Early encouragement in the Aspirations mold is critical — but it alone isn’t enough to solve the problem.

Good thing Advance IT Minnesota isn’t alone. The second big women-in-tech announcement comes from Hack the Gap, an “all-women hackathon” group based in Minneapolis. Hack the Gap just confirmed the date and venue for its second annual hackathon: May 14-16 at Clockwork in Minneapolis. Participants will “pitch their ideas, work with new technologies, write code, hack hardware, and present their project to the community by the end of the weekend,” according to a release.

Hack the Gap hackathons are safe spaces for women to push their technical skills and collaborate with like-minded techies without the normal pressures or drudgery of the workplace. “Many women spoke with me about what [the first annual Hack the Gap hackathon] gave them,” says Kristen Womack, Hack the Gap co-founder. “For some, it was a new group of people they met and bonded with, for others it was a skill they learned, and several spoke of the confidence they left with after the weekend.”

Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges is on board with Hack the Gap, too. She briefly attended last year’s event and tweeted an enthusiastic thumbs up afterward: “Hack the Gap is the total awesome package of women and tech and apps and cool stuff. So fun.”