News Column

Girl Geeks Gather in San Francisco

August 26, 2013

Jessica Floum

hispanic woman with computer

From the place to the participants, this wasn't your typical business networking event.

At San Francisco's TechShop -- a shared work space for makers, inventors and engineers -- blazers and jeans took the place of pantsuits, and sneakers and boots replaced heels. Most of the 125 participants were women working in the tech industry, or interested in doing so. Men were in the minority.

They'd gathered on a recent evening for one of the latest editions of Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners, enjoying wine, sandwiches and sauteed chicken and checking out TechShop's 3-D printers and silk-screening machines. And, not incidentally, sharing stories and advice on surviving and thriving in tech's male-dominated culture.

Since Google hosted the first Girl Geek gathering in 2008, the dinner series has taken place at Facebook, Yahoo, Genentech, Microsoft, Yelp and similar firms. While all have been aimed at empowering those who attend, each has had its own way of doing so.

On this night, keynote speaker Brit Morin, Silicon Valley's queen of the do-it-yourself lifestyle -- outfitted in a maxi skirt, a T-shirt reading "You are the CSS to my HTML" and neon orange Converse tennis shoes -- set the tone. Her choice of outfit, the way she'd curled her hair, even the way she'd made her bed that morning were all deliberate, she told her audience. "Every moment is your canvas."

Creativity important

Morin's online platform Brit & Co. instructs users on how to create DIY projects. But being creative shouldn't end with crafts, she said. Women need to fully engage their creative side in their tech jobs, too.

"We're all creators and we're all creative," she told them. " 'I'm not very creative' doesn't work."

Sukrutha Bhadouria, managing director of Bay Area Girl Geek, nodded and chatted with the evening's attendees, causing her white, TechShop-made Lego block earrings to bounce.

"Most companies don't have women's organizations within the company, so there is no support structure," Bhadouria said. "With these dinners, the women get to experience this community where they meet other women that have the same struggles as them and they learn, get inspired and inspire other women."

Bhadouria joined Girl Geek Dinners in 2011, three years after Angie Chang founded the Bay Area chapter of the organization, which is based in London.

Chang, who was also on hand, was easy to spot. Her purple eye shadow and red Lego earrings echoed her red and purple plaid top. She was busy searching for women who had found success at TechShop -- women whose products had been designed and prototyped there and gone on to be mass-produced and distributed. "I know they exist, but they're not the best at marketing themselves," Chang said.

Gender differences

Chang works as the director of growth at Hackbright Academy, a San Francisco engineering fellowship program, where she and her colleagues teach fellows to code and to promote themselves. She notices a discrepancy in the way women and men advocate for themselves in their jobs.

Guys "are three weeks in and they say, 'I'm a software developer,' and someone hands them a job because they said 'I know what I'm doing,' " Chang said. "Whereas a woman will tell me, 'I'm still learning.' They're three years in and they're really good at it, but they're still saying they're still learning."

The discrepancy she noticed in the number of women and men in her first engineering job motivated her to bring Girl Geek Dinners to the Bay Area.

"I was the only woman in my engineering team at a startup in 2007," Chang said. "I kept looking around for a Girl Geek dinner to pop up in the Bay Area, which seemed like it should happen, but it wasn't."

Chang's experience is a common one in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs. According to the Economics and Statistics Administration at the U.S. Commerce Department, women have held less than 25 percent of STEM jobs for the past decade. Women with STEM degrees are less likely than men to work in a STEM job, and those who do earn an average of 14 percent less than men in the field, the agency found.

The report attributed the discrepancy to a lack of female role models, gender stereotyping and less family-friendly flexibility in the STEM fields.

Hearing success stories like Morin's can lead women who attend Girl Geek Dinners to find and take more STEM career opportunities, the organizers say.

"I started to take my career more seriously," Bhadouria said. "I negotiated for a raise. I negotiated for a promotion, all after attending Girl Geek dinners and meeting these senior women at these companies."

Google's initial 2008 dinner drew 400 participants. The dinners have grown more popular since, drawing more than 2,000 entries in a lottery for the 100-400 tickets available each time.

Hands-on activity

TechShop was the first Girl Geek sponsor to incorporate hands-on activities into the networking event. After Morin's speech, it transformed into summer-camp-style space for crafting and collaboration. Women gathered around tables and instructors to build jewelry, bind books and sew lacy panties. If anyone saw irony in a space full of empowered tech women sewing and crafting jewelry, it wasn't brought up.

"My goal is to get them more informed and inspired about how creativity plays a part in technology," Morin said. "I think that most people think they don't work together, but I'm here to prove that they do and show them how. Women are naturally very creative human beings."

Jessica Floum is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: jfloum@sfchronicle.com

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