Women Underrepresented In Montana's Tech Industry

Sep 24, 2018

These are high times for Montana’s high-tech sector. According to the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, the industry is growing at almost 10 times the state’s overall economy, pays its workers nearly twice the median wage, and last year generated nearly $2 billion in revenue.

But some say the industry has a glaring problem, and point to an August roundtable in Missoula featuring high tech executives and Congressman Greg Gianforte. Ten executives participated in that meeting with Gianforte; all were white men.

“It took me back to my days in Saudi Arabia where women were outlawed from working," says Missoula’s Tom Stergios, one of the executives at the meeting. "It literally had been that long since I was at a table that large that was exclusively men.” 

Staff from Missoula's Advanced Technology Group. L to R: Tom Stergios, Kym Corwin, Kristin Mickey, Holly Foster, Carey Davis.
Credit Edward O'Brien / Montana Public Radio

Stergios is an executive with Advanced Technology Group, a Kansas-based technology consulting firm with more than 120 employees in its Missoula office.

Stergios, who also sits on the High Tech Business Alliance’s board of directors, says workplace diversity is paramount. At the start of 2018, almost 60 percent of ATG’s Missoula hires were women. That’s almost twice the national average.

Stergios did not appreciate what he saw at that August roundtable.
“It didn't sit well with me. I left, and I was actually a little bit ill. I felt ill that that was the situation and that was the best we could do. I didn’t want to point fingers at anybody, but I thought ‘why don’t I give Christina Henderson a call."

Christina Henderson is executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, which represents over 300 high-tech and manufacturing companies.

“We were surprised and discouraged," Henderson says of the August roundtable. "I would say that we didn’t have many women, if we had women at all.” 

Christina Henderson is Executive Director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, which represents over 300 high-tech and manufacturing companies.
Credit Montana High Tech Business Alliance

Henderson says women make up about 40 percent of the nation’s overall high-tech workforce; including positions in marketing, accounting, and human resources.

But that figure shrinks to 15 percent when it comes to high level executive and specialized technical positions.

“And in some areas like venture capital investment, the numbers are really low. Three or four percent of venture-funded businesses are led by women. So, in some areas we’re doing really poorly as a country.”

She chalks that up to a form of group-think. According to Henderson, investors are most comfortable with familiar, proven concepts.

She also believes investors, “Choose to network with people or support people who look like people who you already are friends with or already connected to. That tends to bias a whole industry toward white men."

Some on social media incorrectly blamed Congressman Gianforte for the meeting’s gender disparity on display at that meeting. All the roundtables are organized by the Alliance which reached out to male and female executives alike.

“But we had a drastically different response rate between men and women,” Henderson says.

An Alliance event in April featuring Senator Jon Tester drew eight executives, one of whom was a woman.

Two female executives joined an Alliance roundtable earlier this month featuring the president of the Federal Reserve. They were joined by 10 men.

Henderson says the Alliance curates its invitations from a list of 60 of the state’s top-performing tech companies. Roughly 30 percent of those firms have women founders or executives.

“It wasn’t because we weren’t inviting women," she says. "Twenty-six percent of the invitations that we sent went to a female executive.”

Men who received invites agreed to participate over half the time.

“Women responded ‘yes’ 15 percent of the time. Twenty-seven percent of the time, a woman who was invited would send a man in her place to represent the company,” Henderson says.

Kym Corwin works for Missoula technology consulting company ATG.

“Unfortunately I wasn’t surprised to see the number, or lack of attendance," she says.

While enthusiastically praising her company’s commitment to diversity, Corwin says timing can be an issue. Invitations to these events sometimes come on very short notice.

“Sorry Tom, but a lot of the times we get these at the very last minute, and it’s almost impossible to adjust our calendar. But also saying, ‘I don’t know if that’s something I should be prioritizing. And quite frankly, I wasn’t,” Corwin says.

“The thing that annoys all of us the most is when somebody says, ‘Oh, I couldn’t find a woman to be on that panel.’"

Montana venture capitalist Liz Marchi:

"Or, ‘oh, there aren’t any women in banking’. Or ‘oh, there aren’t any women CEO founders.’ Yes, there are. Call me and I will be happy to give you several names. There’s never an excuse for not having a woman at the table."

Marchi and her husband Jon, own and operate a 700 acre Montana cattle ranch.

Liz Marchi with her husband John.
Credit Courtesy Liz Marchi

“We’re 8 miles west of Polson, Montana overlooking the Flathead River and my happiest place on the planet with our cows and corgis.”

She also founded the Frontier Angel Fund, which 10 years ago started helping Montana and regional start-ups  with financial backing and business mentorship.

She says she’s "been around the block" at least a couple of times in the technology and financial sectors. Marchi got her professional break 40 years ago and marvels at how times have changed for professional women.

“For example, I got two weeks unpaid maternity leave, and that’s when I left finance. Today, banks give mothers and fathers generally three to six months family leave.”

Marchi loves the phrase, "You can’t be what you can’t see." Meaning how can girls and young women aspire to achieve in the science, technology and business realms if female role models aren’t consistently front and center?

“My last startup, I always hate to say that, is going to be really focusing and reaching much further down to junior high and high school to begin talking to young women and young people about technology, innovation and careers in finance.”

Holly Foster, ATG Missoula’s vice-president of delivery, agrees that it’s important that there’s a pipeline of women who are qualified to take on leadership roles in technology companies.

“I actually worked at an organization early in my career that had all these affirmative action things they did where they put women in positions that they weren’t prepared for. It just makes us look bad," Foster says. "I’m not going to bring a female onto the team just because she’s female. She has to have all the chops and be up to the level where we have the bar, because otherwise it doesn’t help anybody.”

Montana High Tech Business Alliance.

The Montana High Tech business Alliance has drawn up recommendations designed to get more females executives to the table:

1)  Company leaders, insist women attend roundtables and panels.
2)  Women, agree to participate more often
3)  Men, nudge your female colleagues to participate more.  

Comprehensive gender parity in Montana’s tech industry won’t happen overnight, but Advanced Technology Group executive Tom Stergios says he will continue to help advance that goal.

“We always say, we’re a mistake-driven culture. There's no villains here, but I think we can work earlier, smarter and more intentional to achieve our goals.”