Sarah*, 51, has always had a knack for computers.
“In the 1990s, I was teaching basic computers and autocad, but I was self-taught. I didn’t have a college degree,” she said. “When the economy crashed, all of a sudden I was competing for entry-level technology jobs with people who had one or two higher degrees.”
A single mother of a 16-year-old daughter, Sarah has worked primarily as an administrative assistant for the past 16 years — despite her skills and interest in technology. She is raising her daughter in San Francisco, where a family of four earning $100,000 per year is considered to be living in poverty, according to recent research from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Today, programs are emerging to help women — especially mothers — like Sarah access high-wage careers in technology.
Sarah is hopeful that one such new program, Techtonica, can help steer her career back toward technology. Techtonica is a nonprofit that partners with technology companies to provide free technology training, living stipends, and job placement to low-income women in the Bay Area. Most Techtonica participants are women of color.
“There is discrimination in the tech industry that makes it difficult for underrepresented people to feel included and want to stick it out,” said Michelle Glauser, Techtonica’s founder. Statistics provide evidence of Glauser’s point: In a 2016 report, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimated that of the people employed in the tech industry in 2014, only 36 percent were women, 8 percent were Latino, and just over 7 percent were black.
After participating in a brief Techtonica workshop that offered tech training to low-income Bay Area women, Sarah applied and was one of eight women accepted to Techtonica’s inaugural full-time program, which launched in San Francisco on May 1 and is set to conclude in November. Sarah hopes that Techtonica will help her and her classmates achieve their potential and improve their chances of earning more money.
Sarah’s story is far from unique. Systemic barriers have long kept women from entering or rising in the ranks of high-wage fields like technology, finance, and law. This lack of economic opportunity disproportionately impacts mothers. Elizabeth Warren wrote in her 2003 book, The Two-Income Trap, that having children was the best predictor of whether a woman would experience financial collapse.
“Motherhood is now the single best indicator that an unmarried middle-class woman will end up bankrupt,” Warren wrote.
Women are still shouldering most unpaid domestic labor, hindering their earning potential. Indeed, a 2010 National Bureau of Economic Research study estimated that having a child at the age of 30 or later costs the average highly skilled woman $230,000 in lost wages over the course of her life, relative to childless women in similar situations.
Single mothers are also less likely to have sufficient retirement savings and more likely to live in poverty in their later years.
Against this backdrop, a range of programs like Techtonica seeks to ensure that more women, especially mothers, can access career pathways that could improve their financial security over the course of their lives. These programs offer variations on a strategy that has been coined returnships, or internship opportunities specifically designed for mothers or other full-time caregivers who seek to return to the workforce.
Returnships have existed in finance and law, and the concept is now growing in the technology sector.
Another example of a technology returnship program is Path Forward. The nonprofit partners with technology companies — including GoDaddy, Cloudera, and InstaCart — to “create midcareer paid internship programs for professionals who have been out of the workforce for more than two years to accommodate caregiving responsibilities,” according to its website.
Tami Forman founded Path Forward in 2016. The program has worked with women in Colorado and New York, and is now building a class in San Francisco.
According to Forman, her program helps alleviate concerns tech hiring managers may have about hiring women or other caregivers who have been out of the workforce, while also providing work experience for women.
Of the 50 women who have graduated from Path Forward, 80 percent were retained by the company who brought them on for a 12- to 16-week returnship, Forman said. Of those not retained, 90 percent were employed within six months of leaving the program.
Trisha, who prefers not to share her last name, participated in Path Forward’s 2016 class. She had nine years of project management experience in the technology sector prior to leaving for three years to care for her son full-time. When she began looking for a job again, Trisha received many initial calls from tech hiring managers, but she was never called in for a second interview. This went on for months.
“I didn’t think I’d go through this. I didn’t think people would think twice about hiring me, someone with nine years of experience,” Trisha said.
Her Path Forward returnship placed her with Demandbase, an advertising and marketing technology company. Following her returnship, Trisha was hired by Demandbase as a project manager.
“Especially in the Bay Area where the technology sector is so competitive, we need programs like Path Forward that remind employers about the talent that is out there,” Trisha said.
While Techtonica seeks to boost career opportunities for low-income or non-college-educated women, Path Forward seeks to boost the numbers of women at the highest ranks of major technology corporations.
“I want more women to achieve corporate power,” Forman said. “Over time, I want us to move the needle on flexibility and paid time off, as well. For now, I am focused on ensuring more women can come back to work and are at the corporate table.”
Unlike Techtonica, Path Forward does not seek to focus on the needs of low-income women or women who may not have college degrees. This does not mean the mothers in Path Forward’s program have not experienced serious economic challenges, Forman said. Divorce, family deaths, or other life events can make it critical for mothers in her program to return to work.
“Women who come to our program are less likely to have access to networks that would make it easier for them to get back into the workforce. They’re not necessarily married to a Wall Street husband who can introduce them to 10 people,” Forman said.
There is a range of other organizations facilitating technology returnships — and jobs — for women. Another organization doing work similar to Path Forward is PowerToFly, which connects tech companies such as Slack and Intuit with women seeking employment in tech. Yet another organization, MotherCoders, is expanding the tech talent pool by helping women with kids gain the skills, knowledge, and connections they need to thrive in today’s digital economy.
In this landscape, Techtonica is unique. Glauser is deliberately focused on creating job placement opportunities for low-income women and those least likely to have access to education, training, or networks that can make a career in technology possible.
Seventy-one percent of Techtonica’s workshop participants have been women or gender non-binary adults of color. Techtonica pays for students’ living and childcare costs for the duration of the program, making the program more accessible to women with fewer resources.
And Techtonica is more inclined to support older women — in line with the need for women’s financial security in their later years. Techtonica’s curriculum exposes students to a range of roles in the tech industry, including the role of software engineer, but also marketing and other career trajectories.
Given the sheer numbers of women in low-wage fields, there is a need for returnship and tech career pathway models — like the one offered by Techtonica — that serve low-wage women. Two-thirds of low-wage workers are women, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Low-wage positions include retail, restaurant, or domestic work. According to a 2016 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, low-wage positions pay anywhere from $9.25 to $13.50 per hour, depending on location.
Nearly 12 million people work in the restaurant industry in the United States, and the average hourly wage is $9.44. Restaurant jobs are among the occupations with the highest projected job growth into 2024.
Yet it does not seem like returnship models are reaching many women in low-wage fields.
Saru Jayaraman is co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, a group that organizes restaurant workers to fight for better wages, paid sick leave, and predictable schedules in the restaurant industry.
When I asked her about whether there were returnship strategies for mothers who are restaurant workers, Jayaraman shrugged.
“In the restaurant industry, women just start from the bottom all over again after having a baby,” she said.
Sarah has been doing administrative work that she says typically pays her $15 per hour. She and her 16-year-old daughter live in subsidized housing in San Francisco. She said that paying for a higher degree on this wage has not been possible.
Sarah is excited about the potential Techtonica can offer her — and her daughter, who aspires to a career in technology, too.
“This program can legitimize my self-taught skills and help me make more money,” Sarah said. “Without a college degree, somebody like me is relegated to being an admin assistant for the rest of her life. I have way more to offer than that.”
*Sarah is a pseudonym to protect the privacy of this source.
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