Rapid Blog: In a changing Grand Rapids, a call for more women in our city's tech scene

Becky VandenBout, a BitCamp instructor and advisory board member and front end web developer at Appropos, tells Rapid Growth about her hopes for the new year, including the need for more women in Grand Rapids' tech scene.
Becky VandenBout, a BitCamp instructor and advisory board member and front end web developer at Appropos, tells Rapid Growth about her hopes for the new year, including the need for more women in Grand Rapids' tech scene.
When asked to create my wish list for Grand Rapids in 2016, I thought of growth and diversity in both our society and industry, especially in the tech scene.

For anyone like me, a Grand Rapids transplant from the Detroit area, you get a bit of culture shock when you arrive here. When I moved to Grand Rapids in January of 2008 from the Detroit area, there was a sparse rental market, an utter lack of liberals and non-Christians, and all you’d see, looking in any direction, were miles and miles of chain restaurants. Since the end of the recession, we’ve seen a downtown rental market boom, our first Kent County same-sex marriage, an atheist scheduled to give the invocation at a Grandville City Council meeting, and an ever-growing local restaurant scene that rivals cities twice our size.

When you look around, whether you’re in the suburbs of Hudsonville, the bike paths of Rockford, the bustling atmosphere of downtown, all you see is growth. If you take the time to really look, you’ll see new businesses like The Black Heron, Denym and Harmony Hall setting up camp on the west side of downtown, a thriving housing market (at least for buyers), and a more progressive mindset overall moving forward. With a growing population, as well as local industry, the growth possibilities are endless. I simply wish for this all to continue. I can’t wait to see what 2016 has in store.

Another wish I have for Grand Rapids is not only for continued growth, or social diversity, but for specifically more women in the local tech scene. Women are taking on more leadership roles than ever before (congrats to Mayor Bliss!) and are facing hurdles that many refuse to acknowledge, such as the gender pay gap and the severe lack of women in technology.

There are local efforts, such as Software GR’s BitCamp (a day-long camp to introduce middle school girls to writing code by teaching them how to make a simple web site), to help bridge the gap early on and efforts like the viral #iLookLIkeAnEngineerGR in social media to raise awareness about the lack of understanding regarding the very few of us women who are involved in the Grand Rapids tech scene. I attended the Macomb Mathematics Science and Technology Center for high school, where I took AP Physics with
only one other female, and Kettering University for my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, where I graduated with three, yes only three, other female electrical engineers. I’ve worked as a controls engineer, a web development consultant, and most recently at a very well established tech startup, and the attitudes, pitfalls and victories are similar throughout the STEM fields and academia in which I’ve been involved. We are a tiny minority in these groups, and that needs to change.

People often ask me, “What is so different about being a woman in tech as opposed to being a man in tech?” The differences are subtle, yet painful enough to make a very real impact on your job and career. As mentioned in a recent interview with Atomic Object developer, Jeanette Head, when working with mostly all men, “It takes you longer to prove yourself and gain their trust.” She brings up many points in her interview that I myself have dealt with, and about which my female counterparts at all previous jobs have expressed concern.

Another example is when clients, or sometimes even teammates, ask the males in the group first for their opinion, so you have to learn to speak up and make yourself be heard or you’ll get left in the dust and ignored. That all being said, the vast majority of the industry is very supportive of getting more women into tech, and these issues happen with fewer and fewer people, but with it being such a “boy’s club,” it can get discouraging at times.

I don’t believe either gender is more intelligent, capable or hardworking than the other, and I definitely don’t believe companies should hire more women at the expense of talent, but I do very strongly believe in equal opportunity and exposure for both genders and the importance of diversity. More females in the field would mean a wider range of background experiences, emotional intelligence, communication styles, workplace conversation, support and understanding for other females, and, most importantly, ideas.

There are monthly subscription programs like
Tinker Crate and free online resources like Made With Code and Hour of Code that are perfect for encouraging even very young girls to get involved with tech. Even if they end up not going into a STEM field, at least they were exposed to it enough to make an informed decision. Many public and private schools’ curriculum is extremely lacking as far as engineering and coding classes, so programs like BitCamp, First Robotics, BizStream Academy, and Girl Develop It are great extracurriculars in which to get your children, students and friends involved.

For 2016, I wish for Grand Rapids as a city to do all it can to expose more females to STEM careers in hopes for a more diverse future.
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