Working for a Portland, Oregon, staffing firm in the late 1990s, Kristin McKinney ’95 helped recruit employees to the city’s burgeoning tech industry. The job unleashed her own geek.
“I found I had a bit of an inner nerd,” says McKinney, who got her degree in business. “I never really knew that.”
Her newfound enthusiasm was tempered by a sobering reality: Women then, like now, accounted for less than 30 percent of the computing and information technology workforce, according to the National Science Foundation.
McKinney, now a recruiter in Nashville, Tennessee, is working to reverse the trend. In 2013, she joined computer application engineer Rachel Werner to form Nashville Girl Geek Dinners, a networking cum social group for women tech professionals.
The organization is part of London-based Girl Geek Dinners, whose 64 chapters in 23 countries promote broader tech participation by women.
Every month in Nashville, between 40 to 60 women—some hoping to transition into the tech industry and others who are simply curious—nosh on everything from hot chicken sliders to pizza, while they participate in workshops that, in addition to imparting the latest tech know-how, provide a safe outlet for sharing personal experiences. Most of the participants are in their 20s and 30s.
“Women tend to be those lone warriors in the midst of a large number of men,” McKinney says. “You don’t feel as confident, and there’s a bit of that imposter syndrome. We wanted to build confidence and give them encouragement.”
Cultural stereotypes, including charges that tech is a “boys club,” are partially blamed for gender disparities. A 2014 National Student Clearinghouse study showed that women accounted for just 18 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees.
Nashville Girl Geek Dinners also hosts a monthly Code + Pinot, in which women can learn computer coding while sipping their favorite libation.
“It’s a very chill environment,” says McKinney. “We don’t want it to be too serious, but we absolutely want you to get something from your time, whether it be a new relationship, learning a new topic, or just being encouraged by the panelists.”
Besides her recruiting work, McKinney does community outreach for the nonprofit Nashville Software School, which bills itself as a “software boot camp.” The school was launched in 2012 to help Nashville’s tech industry nurture local software developers. Nearly 300 people to date have graduated from the program.
In August, McKinney helped to launch a Girl Geek podcast, which focuses less on technology than the personal stories of the women who attend the dinners. McKinney interviews many of the participants, a number of whom found the confidence to pursue a tech career after taking part in the dinners.
“It really shows that the work we’re doing matters to people,” she says. “Part of it is just getting women to apply to these jobs and be confident to say, ‘This is a direction I can go.’”