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Standing up for women in tech

Becoming a computer engineer was a rocky road for Janice Levenhagen-Seeley, and in the end she gave up on the idea of having a career in high tech. But rather than give up on the field as whole, she found a way to make it better.

Levenhagen-Seeley, an Oregon State University 2006 alumna of the College of Engineering, founded the non-profit organization, ChickTech, to encourage girls and women to enter and stay in technology fields. Launched in 2012, ChickTech has expanded to 10 cities including Portland, Chicago, Houston and New York. This year, Levenhagen-Seeley was honored with an outstanding early career award from Oregon State’s College of Engineering.

The outsider

When Levenhagen-Seeley started her degree at Oregon State, 13 percent of the engineering students were female, but feeling like an outsider was not a new experience for her.

In second grade her family moved to a small rural community in Wisconsin where she lived on a dairy farm, 15 miles from town. As an outsider in the tightknit community, she was bullied throughout her school years on the long bus ride. But she excelled in school, especially math, and joined the school math team.

“I got a firsthand look at how it feels to have no one standing up for you, and how that affects your confidence and sense of self-worth.”

Unfortunately, that’s when she started noticing subtle discrimination for her gender. All of the boys on the team had been encouraged to take a programming class that she had not even heard of until it was too late to register.

“I got a firsthand look at how it feels to have no one standing up for you, and how that affects your confidence and sense of self-worth,” she says.

The bullying and discrimination took its toll and she lost her passion for learning. She retained good grades, but was apathetic about school. At age 16, Levenhagen-Seeley became pregnant with her first child. It was an event that transformed her.

“I drove myself hard in order to be able to make this great future for myself and my son,” she says.

In her senior year, her family moved to Eugene and Levenhagen-Seeley sought out a high school that had a program for teen parents. There she could focus on her rigorous schedule, including four Advanced Placement classes, while her son was in daycare at the school. She also found people who were very supportive. When she started applying to colleges, school employees took her to visit Lewis & Clark College and Oregon State.

“I remember how good it felt to have someone stand up for me, and because of that I am passionate about standing up for other people,” Levenhagen-Seeley says.

“That is my driving force with ChickTech — standing up for other women and girls who may be feeling like they don’t belong.”

Levenhagen-Seeley received a Ford Opportunity scholarship and an AeA Technology scholarship which paid for most of her college. She was the first single parent in the study abroad program, and while in France she earned enough credits for a French minor. When she graduated she also had minors in business and computer science. She felt well-qualified when she hit the job market, but then her first job offer was rescinded when she broke the news that she was pregnant with her second child. In an interview for another job she was told she wouldn’t be offered the job because of her pregnancy.

“That was the last straw for me. I felt like I was not valued, and I decided this industry was not worth it,” she says.

“That is my driving force with ChickTech — standing up for other women and girls who may be feeling like they don’t belong.”

The experience motivated her to switch careers. She received her MBA from Willamette University in 2010, and worked in project management, business marketing and consulting until she founded ChickTech. Along the way she co-founded a start-up with a friend and rediscovered her love of tech.

“I learned PHP and JavaScript and SQL and built a prototype tool that I was pretty proud of,” Levenhagen-Seeley says. “And I realized that if I hadn’t left technology I could be making this really cool, fun stuff all the time.”

It was a sad moment for her — not just personally, but also for what the industry is losing as a whole by not including a large demographic of people who could be making a difference in technology. She felt there were other girls and women who were missing a great opportunity. So she made it her job to create the kind of supportive community that would have helped her stay in the field.

ChickTech for Change

Levenhagen-Seeley based the principles of ChickTech on her personal experiences. One of ChickTech’s main events for high-school girls are workshops where they can get hands-on experiences with technology — something Levenhagen-Seeley did not have growing up.

2014 ChickTech event, held in Corvallis.

“When I started college I didn’t even know what programming was, or what you would use it for,” she says.

ChickTech asks high-school teachers to nominate girls who have an aptitude for technology but have not tried it out. She fills the events with close to 100 girls so they can empower each other. Interactions with the girls are guided by the two core values of ChickTech — respect and equality.

“Just because you’re 17 doesn’t mean you are less of a person than someone who is 18,” Levenhagen-Seeley says. “Rather than being condescending, our attitude with them is that we think they would be awesome at technology, and we want to help them enter the tech industry and make it better.”

More than hosting events, ChickTech is about providing a community to support change in the industry. This includes holding networking events for women in tech, and offering support and guidance for all the ChickTech chapters through monthly calls, email lists and an annual meet-up.

ChickTech is rapidly growing and Levenhagen-Seeley expects to have 22 chapters by this time next year, including a chapter in Canada.

“When I take step back and look at the big picture I realize how big it’s gotten,” Levenhagen-Seeley says. “We have over 1,000 people of all genders involved in volunteering for ChickTech. It really shows how passionate people are about this issue.”

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