Throughout the 2019 season, the Minnesota Lynx, in partnership with Rasmussen College, will be honoring inspiring women who have made incredible contributions in many different areas while motivating, encouraging and lifting up others through personal and professional leadership. At 2019 STEM Night, the Lynx recognized Sarah Olson, a leader in the fight to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the Twin Cities tech community.
It was about seven years ago that Sarah Olson saw a problem and recognized she had a role to play in doing something about it.
The longtime programmer and developer noticed that as the technology sector constantly grew larger and more lucrative, there were fewer and fewer women working in tech. As the stereotype of programming as a male-dominated industry grew, women were less and less likely to pursue careers in tech and the toxic culture of many tech companies caused the rate of attrition to grow as well.
“In the end it is culture. It’s people not feeling comfortable at work. We have a lot of companies that talk about bringing your whole self to work, but when you do, you get dinged for it,” she said. “Some people can bring their whole self to work and some people can’t. So, you’re navigating this industry that’s constantly telling you that you are not the norm.”
Olson, having worked in tech for two decades, knew the problems, but it took a bit of a push for her to find the solutions. She saw that Apple started a scholarship to bring women with experience in tech to its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) but in order to qualify, you needed to be a part of an organization like Girl Develop It or Women Who Code. That made her aware of these nonprofits whose missions were to support women in technology.
Olson went on to join the leadership team of the local chapter of Girl Develop It and ended up attending the WWDC where she connected with Women Who Code. The mission of Women Who Code resonated with her because it focused on fixing the problems for women in the tech industry instead of just pushing women into an environment where it was difficult for them to succeed.
“How do we fix the things that make it bad for women to work in tech instead of just, I think one of the quotes I heard was, ‘Why fix the pipeline when it just ends up in the sewer?’” said Olson. “You’re just pushing all these women into a toxic place and that’s not helpful. Let’s fix the toxicity.”
Olson went on to found and become the first head of the local chapter of Women Who Code before she handed off those duties to give other people a chance at leadership and focus on other problems. She also became heavily involved with App Camp for Girls, a program focused on “empowering girls, transgender and gender nonconforming youth to pursue careers in technology.” The way Olson sees it, the problems facing the industry are multifaceted—there is the issue of a culture that is toxic to anyone who doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a coder and there is the problem of getting women and girls interested in tech in the first place. One problem can’t be solved without the other.
Now, Olson is working on a new nonprofit, MNclude. MNclude focuses on an essential mission—localizing advocacy in the tech industry and empowering and supporting leaders within communities to take action.
“They’re so many groups that kind of spin up, they have brand new organizers, they don’t know how to start a group, they don’t know where to get started, they don’t know how to advertise it, but we really want to empower people within those communities to step up and get that leadership status and make the partnerships with local companies, which is how you make yourself visible in the community,” Olson said.
As the fight to make the tech community more diverse and equitable continues, Olson sees a place for organizations like the Lynx to play a role. Sports has a visibility factor that doesn’t exist with technology and utilizing that to support change in tech is important.
“I think stuff like this is really, really great—highlighting people who are doing things to try and make the community better,” said Olson. “When we talk about tech, I think it’s a good opportunity to tie in high profile women who are achieving great things to be able to say tech is important.”
“The more that sports teams can say that tech is a good thing, and here’s some high-profile people in tech that say this is a career choice you can make, that support and visibility is very important,” she added.