Light a Fire 2017: Best New Nonprofit

How One Nonprofit Tackles the Gender Gap in Portland Tech

With twice as many men as women working in local tech, PDXWIT aims to right the balance (cocktails in hand).

By Kelly Clarke October 16, 2017 Published in the November 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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PDXWIT members at a CryptoParty

Megan Bigelow was tired of tech-bro culture. Tired of deflecting comments about her looks. Tired of showing up to meetings and “being the only person without a beer in their hand.” Most of all, tired of her male colleagues—who hold nearly 70 percent of the technical roles in the software industry overall—making tens of thousands of dollars more per year for the same work.

So, in 2012, she hosted a “Portland Women in Tech” meetup at the cheesy bar next to her office downtown. “Around 15 women showed up from across the tech spectrum: managers, developers, a CEO,” she remembers. “It was just so much fun. And empowering. What I was experiencing wasn’t unusual. We all felt so alone and isolated.”

Five years later, PDXWIT is a juggernaut. And Bigelow and her colleagues are isolated no more. Big tech firms like New Relic and Simple vie to host the group’s monthly happy hours, which draw up to 250 women—and woke dudes—to talk shop, network, and vent. A packed monthly calendar of intimate, member-driven satellite events—from “CryptoParties” that spread info on personal protection in digital spaces to panels on how to lure more female military veterans to the industry—relies on PDXWIT support. And a two-year-old tech mentorship program just matched up its 400th pair.

Bigelow, now the director of customer care at Jama Software, says PDXWIT allows women to become “whole people” again, adding that the tech industry often rewards women who tamp down emotion and act like “one of the guys.”

“At our happy hours there’s a lot of technical problem solving and making business connections, but there’s also the freedom to talk about your family,” she says. “Or tell someone, ‘Hey, your outfit is awesome.’ At PDXWIT you can let it fly.”

After transitioning to nonprofit status in August 2016, Bigelow is fired up to expand PDXWIT’s reach to underserved, marginalized groups and women just considering a career in tech. Take Vanessa Sharma, who moved to town in 2015, attended code school, then couldn’t land a full-time job as a developer.

“It was scary even reading the job descriptions, with 50 bullet-pointed qualifications,” she remembers. “You go to these panel interviews with five men on the other side of the table, they’re all asking questions, they don’t even make eye contact,” she says with a laugh. “Without the encouragement of PDXWIT women, I wouldn’t have continued pursuing jobs in Portland.”

With PDXWIT’s help, Sharma landed a sweet gig in May building mobile apps for a local company. In August, she hosted her own PDXWIT satellite event: “How to Get Your Foot in the Tech-Industry Door.” Eye contact was made.

PDXWIT by the Numbers

  • Current percentage of men vs. women working in Portland tech: 67% vs. 33%
  • Number of PDXWIT members: 3,800
  • Annual membership fee: $0
  • Number of guests at a recent PDXWIT happy hour: 133
  • Number of local tech businesses that have hosted a PDXWIT event: 64 (and counting)
  • Number of unpaid volunteers: 51
  • Number of paid staffers: 0
  • Number of events in Portland since 2012: 125
  • Percentage of 2017 new hires inPortland tech who were female: 46%
  • Are trans and nonbinary people welcome? 100%
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