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TechTank

Women in civic technology show the benefits of a diverse workforce

Women have made great strides in recent decades to increase their representation among doctors and lawyers, but their numbers in the technology industry remain stagnant. This fact marks a missed opportunity to bring diverse perspectives to solving problems with technology. One area where women have made headway is in civic technology, a variety of digital services that connect citizens with their government. On June 27, the Center for Technology Innovation hosted a panel at the Brookings Institution to discuss the role of women in civic tech. The event was cosponsored by the three young-professionals networks at Brookings: the Brookings Network, the Data Network, and the Women’s Impact Network.

What is civic tech?

Civic tech aims increase citizen engagement using 21st century tools. Examples include a smartphone app that that allows Boston residents to report potholes for quicker response, and an algorithm that tags people and topics in recordings of San Jose city council meetings for residents who cannot attend in person. To workers and investors in the tech industry, civic tech presents an opportunity to make money and make an impact at the same time.

The field has grown incrementally in recent years, but it could have transformative power to bridge the gap between technology and policy. More people must become familiar with civic tech for it to achieve its transformative potential. Increasing broadband internet access and smartphone ownership among low-income populations is one obstacle to overcome, but so is spreading awareness about how to use civic tech. Citizens can also join discussions of how nascent technologies like autonomous vehicles will affect their communities. Discussions with the end users of a technology before it arrives can lead to better policies down the road.

Women’s role in techNology

Women face several barriers to entry that prevent them from succeeding in tech. It begins with fewer women enrolling in STEM classes, where a lack of female peers might discourage interested girls from participating. Telling more stories of successful women in tech can teach young girls and women that they deserve to be in the tech space. Even when they enter the field, women face obstacles that might drive them to leave. Women only receive around two percent of venture capital dollars, so few of their innovations get funding. Building a hospitable work environment and stronger support networks for women in tech will ensure that more of their ideas become a reality.

While diversity is important in the technology industry, it is especially so within civic tech. Thinking comprehensively about these issues will require everyone’s perspectives. The lack of representation for women and people of color introduces bias within technology and surrounding policies. In addition, while over 90 percent of entrepreneurs and venture capital firms are male and over 80 percent are white, research shown that more diverse teams are higher-performing. In the civic tech space, women engineers and venture capitalists are more likely to create or invest in technology for social good. More women in the tech field could mean more higher-performing and comprehensive civic technologies that benefit the whole of society.

Miku Fujita contributed to this blog post.

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