Women in Technology May Be Better Off in Washington Than in Silicon Valley
Women Working in Politics and Advocacy Speak Well of DC’s Culture
It’s no secret that the American technology industry has a gender equality problem.
Women are woefully underrepresented among programmers and executives at major firms. They are much more likely to leave after a year than male counterparts. And those who stay complain of a pervasive “brogrammer” culture that challenges their advancement.
But many women sketch a very different picture of the political technology sector here in Washington. While politics certainly has its own glass ceilings, the joining of two industries long dominated by men – politics and technology – has not necessarily blunted female opportunity.
“I am DEFINITELY better off working in political tech than in Silicon Valley,” Ariel Boone, a strategist for Berkeley-based Trilogy Interactive, wrote in an email.
Emma Gibbens, who works for the civic tech start-up Organizer, wrote that, “I have found the ‘tech bros’ I work with to be very open minded and respectful after a few weeks working together.”
Gibbens added that the climate at her firm improved after its leadership team became one-third female. “I do believe that advocacy tech is unique and less frustrating for women,” she wrote.
A Skills Divide?
While there are no statistics that prove women working in political and advocacy technology are treated more fairly or are better able to advance, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that women fare well in Washington.
For instance, Bully Pulpit Interactive, one of the largest Democratic digital advocacy firms in the industry, has six women out of 14 on its senior leadership staff. Overall, half of Bully Pulpit’s workforce is female.
Bully Pulpit’s gender balance is a direct reflection of its origins in President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. The firm’s founders came out of its digital marketing team. After launching five years ago, the firm is now 61 percent female.
Nevertheless, there may be a skills-related divide between genders in political technology. Jenna Golden, Twitter’s sales director for politics and advocacy, said that many women are working in advertising for large technology companies and at media firms. But “if we’re talking about engineering, that’s sort of a different ball game.”
Overall, Golden said she doesn’t think that women were being excluded from data work, polling and other technical roles. “If women want to go towards there, there hasn’t been hesitation to go do that,” she said. “I think generally we have a good mix of people touching the data side and the more social/pr/communications/sales side.”
Supporting Each Other
Whatever the case, women working in advocacy and political technology have organized to support each other’s advancement here in Washington. Golden and a partner at Google created an annual networking event three years ago to bring women together for informal discussion. Representatives from Facebook and Pandora have hosted similar events.
Getting sponsoring for these meetings “was not a hard sell at all,” Golden said. Similar in-house discussions take place at Twitter’s California campus.
What’s happening in Washington mirrors a broader effort by women in the technology sector. Advocacy veterans Erie Meyer and Aminatou Sow started the Tech Lady Mafia listserv in 2011. It now has hundreds of subscribers. Campaigns and Elections named both Meyer and Sow to its Influencers 50 list for 2014.
“I can’t speak to the broader tech industry,” Steffi Decker, a partner at Chong and Koster, wrote in an email. “But I think the fact that I am a senior partner at a top tier firm at 26 shows that this industry has opportunity for young women. Does that mean our space is perfect on this issue? Of course not.”
“Like most tech fields,” she said, “many of the early pioneers of the space were men, which is not surprising since the industry grew out of coding and IT. But the second generation of digital experts is more gender balanced; if the industry can figure out how to cultivate, retain, and promote the best of them, we’ve got a shot at more balanced representation at the top.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described the gender balance of the digital marketing team on the Obama campaign. It is the Bully Pulpit firm that is 61 percent female.