Gender Code


Janice Levenhagen-Seeley reprograms tech.

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Janice Levenhagen-Seeley tucks a strand of her below-the-shoulder brown hair behind thick glasses frames as she contemplates the example she’s set for the girls whose lives she wants to change.

“Death by a thousand cuts — that’s why women leave technology,” says the 31-year-old former programmer, mother of two and founder of ChickTech, a nonprofit that gets girls to code. “People say, ‘You can’t leave; you have to make strides for all these future generations of women.’ But the fact is that I’m changing these young women’s lives. I’m willing to feel like a hypocrite, because I believe in the mission.”

A few of those thousand cuts: In June Scott Kveton, co-founder of the Portland mobile-marketing wunderkind Urban Airship, resigned as CEO amid sexual assault allegations. A few weeks later, Python Software Foundation director Selena Deckelmann wrote a scathing editorial in the Portland Business Journal about rampant sexual harassment in the tech community. “I can’t recommend that women work for startups in Portland,” she said.

And this summer, for the first time, Google and Yahoo! released gender breakdowns showing that less than one-fifth of Google’s technical employees are women; one in six at Yahoo!

As gender disparities and treatment of women in high tech attract national attention, programs aimed at getting more women into these fields are proliferating. Most seek to support girls and women who have already shown an interest in technology: girls-only robotics clubs, advanced classes to develop young women’s skills and support groups for professionals in search of commiseration.

Levenhagen-Seeley is putting her own spin on that trend. At ChickTech, her goal is to flood high-tech fields with the girls — and, starting soon, the women — who have been left behind.

Animated and quick to laugh, Levenhagen-Seeley is unwilling to be worn down by her frustrations. A self-described feminist, she is serious about changing the world through ChickTech — although not so serious as to be offended at calling the girls she serves “chicks.”

As a teenage mother growing up in Wisconsin, Levenhagen-Seeley was good at math but clueless about how to channel a love of numbers into a career. The boys on the high school math teams were steered into computer science — while Levenhagen-Seeley didn’t even know what “programming” meant.

ChickTech aims to change the culture and the dynamic. The nonprofit gives high school girls hands-on exposure to app design, building computers, web programming and other software development skills. The goal is not to graduate world-class programmers, Levenhagen-Seeley says; it’s to introduce girls to the idea that these classes are for them.

Last year 180 volunteers worked on ChickTech programs involving 600 girls in Oregon and California. Two-thirds of these girls had no technology experience, and 30% came from low-income families.

“I wanted to find the girls who were like me, who would do awesome at this, and give them that opportunity to find out before it was too late,” Levenhagen-Seeley says. “We want girls to get excited about these opportunities, to start a school robotics team, to take a computer science class — to see that they can pursue technology as a career.”

0914 profile ChickTechJanice004Levenhagen-Seeley’s post-secondary experience mirrored her time in high school. She majored in computer engineering at Oregon State University but felt out of place surrounded by young men who boasted about their abilities. “My senior year in college, one of my teachers pulled me aside and said, ‘All these guys who seem to know so much are getting Cs, and you are getting an A,’” she says.  “Maybe for me, at that point, it was too late.”

After college she started coding at what she now calls “the worst job ever,” in part because of the male-dominated culture. So Levenhagen-Seeley left programming behind, eventually earning an MBA at Willamette University, then working as a self-employed business consultant.

But she could not stop ruminating on the experiences that gradually drove her out of high-tech work. So in 2012 she started ChickTech, eventually landing $65,000 in grants and corporate donations. This year, she is raising $500,000 as part of a massive expansion of ChickTech’s geographic reach and program offerings. The money will “pay me a reasonable salary,” she says, while allowing her to bring onboard operations and communications managers.

Those additional staff will support ChickTech as it expands beyond Portland and the San Francisco Bay Area.

The nonprofit is also looking beyond high school, as it absorbs another Portland-based nonprofit. Code Scouts, also started in 2012, trains women to become software developers. Levenhagen-Seeley says she also wants to reach out to women in domestic violence situations.

Even this is only the tip of the iceberg — at least from a macro perspective. Her greatest frustration, Levenhagen-Seeley says, is that many companies seem to see supporting girls and women in technology as an extra. “They say, ‘We have other things to focus on besides diversity. We need to make sure our code is right. We need to get our marketing right,’” she says. “Well, women shouldn’t be an extra. Having diversity makes for a stronger team and a stronger company.”

Studies show the more diverse the workplace, the more innovation is likely to occur, agrees Skip Newberry, president of the Technology Association of Oregon, a nonprofit that has provided some of ChickTech’s funding.

Newberry acknowledges the impediments to creating gender parity: girls aren’t self-identifying and pursuing these careers, and many women are frustrated by the cultures they find when they do start work.

ChickTech is helping to create a culture where the women and girls that are participating can see themselves in the tech industry, he says. In August ChickTech partnered with Treehouse (see cover story on page 36) on Change the Ratio, an initiative aimed at getting more women to pursue tech careers.

There is a certain irony to Levenhagen-Seeley’s career trajectory: She wants girls to stick with tech even though she did not. But if software companies won’t change from the top down, ChickTech is prepared to work from the inside out. “We’re working to develop a world where girls can’t think, ‘This isn’t for girls.’ Because there are girls everywhere.”