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The 'Silicon Forest' brings in billions, but it struggles to make women feel welcome, survey finds

Tech companies have thrived in and around Washington County for years, prompting the nickname "Silicon Forest" for the number of high-tech companies clustered into the Portland metropolitan area. But while the tech industry may be doing gangbusters across the area, it's not seen as a welcoming environment for women, according to a new survey by female tech employees.

PDX Women in Technology — a nonprofit working to encourage women to join tech-related fields and support them so that they stay in the field — say harassment and related stereotyping remain prominent issues in the workplace, according to a newly released survey on women's experiences working in the Portland tech industry.

"Our goal is to deeply understand what it is like for people in the community and to identify themes that need to be addressed," the nonprofit organization said releasing the survey. "This year, what we found was stark, but not surprising. We encourage you to use this data to propel change in your companies."

The organization releases a yearly survey on the state of Portland's tech industry.

Asked in the survey whether women believe salaries are comparable for all genders at their company, 75 percent of men responded yes, while only 48 percent of women agreed with them.

About one-third of female respondents said they had been "leaned on to be the den mother, counselor, or admin" in their office because of their gender, something only 2 percent of men had been asked to do.

About one quarter of the women — 24 percent — said they suspected they were passed on a role because of their gender, compared to only 5 percent of men.

In the past year, 17 percent of tech workers said they had experienced harassment in the workplace, according to the survey, and 63 percent of those people did not report it. Of those who did report it, 58 percent felt their report was not handled well, the survey showed.

There were 804 total survey respondents, 81 percent of them female, according to the organization.

"(The survey) is important because it helps raise awareness, particularly, to the root of the issue in that many companies don't believe there is a harassment problem at their workplaces because people aren't reporting it, but what the data is indicating is that doesn't mean there isn't a problem," said Megan Bigelow, board president and founder of PDXWIT. "So I think highlighting this information is just saying, 'Hey there is a problem everywhere and you can't rely on the fact that no one's reporting it as you being removed from the situation.'"

Women in tech face uphill battle

Several local tech companies have come under fire in recent months following allegations of "higher-ups" lacking to follow company policies.

In June, Intel's CEO Brian Krzanich resigned from the company following reports he violated company policies through a past relationship with another employee. The company stated Krzanich violated its "non-fraternization policy" by engaging in a relationship with someone at the company, a policy that applies to all managers.

Earlier this month, four former Nike employees filed a complaint against the company, stating sexual harassment and gender discrimination were prevalent in the workplace. In the lawsuit, the women claimed the company is not following state and U.S. equal-pay laws.

"For many women at Nike, the company hierarchy is an unclimbable pyramid — the more senior the job title, the smaller the percentage of women," court documents stated. "The inequity for women at Nike starts before they do, with decisions about starting pay."

The plaintiffs, Kelly Cahill and Sara Johnston, stated they were speaking on behalf of themselves, and for the other women similarly situated.

"Nike judges women more harshly than men, which means lower salaries, smaller bonuses, and fewer stock options," the lawsuit stated. "Women's complaints to human resources about discrimination and harassment, including sexual assault, are ignored or mishandled. Male bad behavior is rarely penalized. For a woman to succeed at Nike, she must far outshine her male counterparts."

Demand for high-tech workers grows

The survey comes at a time that many school districts across the country are pushing for more women to enter tech-related fields.

The demand for high-tech workers is greater than ever before. So great, in fact, that schools across Washington County have implemented curriculum to get students introduced and engaged in the career possibilities waiting for them in the tech world after school.

The number of students graduating with the qualifications to hold a job in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — does not reflect the number of jobs available, creating a major push for STEM curriculum, after-school programs and camps for youth, even as young as kindergarten.

While PDXWIT's survey touches on the issues reported in the tech workspace, the organization does work to encourage other women to join the industry, as females have been severely outnumbered by their counterpart for years, Bigelow said.

What's most important, she said, is bringing light to the issues and giving women and men the resources to know how to respond in the event they experience or witness harassment in the workplace.

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