MCWT Aims to Make Michigan the Top State for Women in Technology

The tech industry has a well-known gender diversity problem, but in Michigan, there’s a group working to make the Great Lakes state a leader in terms of recruiting and inspiring women working in technology.

The Michigan Council of Women in Technology (MCWT) began in 2000 as a networking organization for working women. Since then, it has evolved. In addition to supporting Michigan’s female IT workforce, the MCWT’s 700-plus members are also focused on numerous outreach and mentoring programs meant to get girls and young women interested in STEM careers.

Last month, the MCWT raised $306,000 during its annual gala to expand these programs; a separate three-year, $75,000 donation from Ford will allow the group to lease office space in Dearborn, MI, for the first time in its history.

“When the MCWT started, it was a group of women working in tech, typically for the automotive industry, who said, ‘There aren’t many of us, but we really want to change that,’” says MCWT president Cindy Warner, managing partner of cloud strategy and solutions for IBM’s global business services unit. “These women needed support and someone to share ideas with. The council started as a mentoring organization, but today, we’re working to significantly improve the number of women working in tech and making Michigan the number one place for women in tech.”

The MCWT is especially interested in connecting with girls in grades 3 through 8 to build awareness of the options available when it comes to a career in tech. “A lot of them don’t even have technology on their radar,” Warner explains. “Nobody has talked to them about it, or they think they don’t like math enough, so they discount it.”

The MCWT has established a program called Girls are IT—run jointly with University of Michigan-Dearborn, University of Detroit Mercy, and Lawrence Tech—that convenes hundreds of local middle school girls each year for a three-quarter day program. The girls attend workshops hosted by technology corporations that teach participants what it’s like to work in different segments of the technology industry. This year’s program drew more than 400 girls, and Warner is aiming to double that number in 2015.

Just last week, the MCWT hosted a website design competition where 18 high school girls took home a combined $2,775 in prizes. It was the culmination of a two-month contest between 103 teams with 144 young women from 30 Michigan high schools. (The finalists’ websites can be viewed here.)

Warner says the website design competition is part of a strategy for reaching out to teenage girls that is heavy in mentorship and relationship-building. “If they do go on to study in a STEM field in college, we offer not only scholarships but a ton of help with career navigation, especially after they graduate and they’ve landed their first job,” she says. “We want them to stay here in Michigan, because there’s still a huge number that don’t stay.”

That mentorship becomes key after college, when a young woman might wonder what she’s gotten herself into on her first tech job—where she may be the only woman working in a company’s IT department. “The retention rate is really poor,” Warner says. “If she doesn’t know where her voice is among men, she might feel like giving up. We want to be there when it happens so we can help her find her voice again.”

Warner says the council’s strategy for the next three years is to continue building partnerships—she envisions one with the Girl Scouts where participants could earn a technology badge—and expanding scholarships to cover trade programs.

Warner, who has worked in technology for the past 33 years, says very little has changed in regard to the number of women in the industry, and that’s the sad part: “We spend too much time giving homage to the problem and too little time designing programs to fix the problem. At the MCWT, we spend very little time on admiration. All of our programming is geared toward trying to fix the problem.”

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