Making Connections

Photography by Zheng Chia

By Helen Mitternight

How does a woman in technology bring her life from data…data…to day…to day…to…(say it fast!).

There’s no punchline in there, except for the fact that it takes connection to survive day to day in the data-driven, male-fueled world of technology. Charleston Women in Tech was created after a meetup of about 13 women in September 2014 to foster that connection as well as to offer education and mentorship.

The hunger for connection is apparent in the organization’s growth. What started as a simple meetup attracted 300 women to its most recent meeting. The organization now has more than 2,300 members.

“We’re at an exciting place, where we can take all of these 2,300-plus women who want to foster careers in technology and really serve them, really leverage this large group in a way that’s going to help the largest number,” says interim executive director Nina Magnesson, who also runs the corporate social responsibility program at BoomTown, a real estate technology company.

Education includes panels such as one in which women talk about being the only woman on the technology team.

“A lot have had such a negative experience that they’ve changed careers or employers,” Nina says. “We want to offer the opportunity for women to talk about it, to offer a forum about the challenges that pioneers have had that they can share.”

Nina, who is not herself an engineer, says she has heard pioneering women engineers talking about how they used to be expected to make coffee 30 years ago. Although that has changed, it can still be “a challenge” being one of the only women on a team, she says.

“It’s a cultural challenge,” Nina says. “This is a male-dominated field and to have a woman working side by side is a change. Some people adapt well to change and other people don’t. Men who are software engineers may have a team and have a way of relating to one another or going to a bar to hang out together after work. That may not fit with the lifestyle of the woman on the team. So she’s left out of whatever team building or information exchange happens. It’s a communication issue, too. I don’t think it’s an intentional issue, but I do think that there is a cultural shift that has to happen that’s a challenge for the status quo. A woman may or may not be taken seriously or have their work acknowledged. I have heard of some examples of women feeling intimidated to the point that they left that team.”

But, she adds, that’s why CWIT is hosting the panel and bringing women together to discuss overcoming these hurdles and thriving.

She hopes to attract more women into technology and not just because it will help speed up the cultural change already happening in the tech world.

“I can say that women in technology in Charleston are growing exponentially, and I can say without any reservation that we are keeping up with the demand and rate of women in tech through the rest of the country,” she says. “I would tell any young woman interested in technology to come to one of our meetups because you will meet women who are in powerful roles in technology in Charleston, where you might not be able to meet them any other way.”

CWIT also is bringing its love of coding to communities that might not otherwise be exposed to the knowledge – some of Charleston’s underserved neighborhoods. Through an initiative called CodeON, which stands for Coding in Our Neighborhoods, group members volunteer to teach coding. They bring Internet, teachers and technology to these labs. Started inside a laundromat in 2014, the initiative has grown into a weekly meeting and multiple locations.

“We go into neighborhoods that are falling into the digital divide and help people get exposed to coding and to form relationships with people in technology,” Nina says. “They may not have to go to a four-year university program, they could go to Trident Tech, or even learn on their own.”

Nina says these meetings – and the organization itself – are all about bringing the future in.

“You have to have an interest and an aptitude, but for better or worse, coding will be the new language for everyone,” she says. “It’s a great career and everything we do from now on is going to require some level of coding. In fact, even if you’re a graphic designer, you can’t just draw anymore, you have to know how to code. Everyone should be fluent in technology: It’s the future.”