Lina Nilsson: Is Utah poised to become the best place for women in tech?

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Recursion Pharmaceuticals, a biotechnology company, is located in The Gateway in Salt Lake City.

I build innovative tech products for a living and moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Utah about a year and a half ago. Recently, I was in a meeting and realized that I have been forgetting to deploy my standard meeting “tools”: I haven’t been resetting my chair height uncomfortably high to appear as tall as the guys and I have been jotting down notes for all to see. And yet, no one at Recursion, my high-tech biotech employer here in Salt Lake City, has asked me to be the permanent official note taker or bring in more coffee.

In other words: I’ve taken down my defenses and been able to focus on the technical work I do best — without being consistently reduced to “office housework,” a duty scholars show is more likely to fall on women than men.

Here’s some sobering statistics: Utah has the nation’s largest gender wage gap. And women are the least likely to be employed in a STEM field in the Beehive State. But I’d like to propose another emerging stat: Utah could become one of the best places to be a woman in tech.

In the tech community, Silicon Valley is the model for all other tech hubs. Before you shake your head, consider all the names aspiring hubs give themselves: Silicon Slopes in Salt Lake City, Silicon Alley in New York City, Silicon Hills in Austin. The list goes on. But what if the world’s global center for high-tech is the past, not the future? Particularly for women.

Roughly 20 percent of technical roles in Silicon Valley-tech companies are held by women. Female-led companies get a mere two percent of venture capital funding. Women have higher career dropout rates and lower participation in leadership, too.

I work at a machine learning-biotech startup in Salt Lake City. But I have also spent nine years in the San Francisco Bay Area.The dynamics of being a woman in tech are simply different in Utah. We have been given both a risk and an opportunity to shape its future.

In the book “Brotopia,” reporter Emily Chang writes about the origins of Silicon Valley’s often toxic gender dynamics: how the culture, practices and employees of a small initial ecosystem of tech startups during the dawn of the commercial internet age in the late 1990s — the “PayPal Mafia” — spread across the industry. Today’s California tech companies have inherited a culture that over-values ruthlessness, homogeneity, and a path to success driven by “bro-networks.”

Many Silicon Valley companies are investing heavily in fixing these imbalances, which disproportionately affect women and minorities. But even the ‘equality trailblazers’ are struggling to make progress within this large, established ecosystem. Facebook, for example, has a massive gender equity effort supported by the vision of COO and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg. Still, the company reports mere 1-3 percent yearly increases in the number of females in tech roles. In the industry more broadly, the numbers, and gender dynamics, are barely budging.

Salt Lake City has a chance to change that. Today, we have a small but rapidly growing ecosystem of modern high-tech firms. This means that seemingly small, initial actions by the leaders of these companies can have larger ripple effects than Facebook could achieve in Silicon Valley (and despite its massive investment).

For example: when the CEO of Recursion sets concrete company goals on diversity in recruiting and encourages community events like our Women in Science and Technology speaker series, this really matters. But when another Utah CEO stands up in front of thousands at the region’s largest tech conference and demeans the women attendees by suggesting they only showed up to crush on a certain pro-athlete guest speaker, this also really matters. We are setting the tone for the tech expansion to come.

This is a call to action for Utah tech leaders. We have all the pieces for Silicon Slopes to emerge not as a belated Silicon Valley clone, but as a next-generation tech hub. The way you shape diversity at your companies today — from large-scale policies to the 140 characters you tweet — will affect not just your company’s success, it will shape the way our local tech community grows. It is up to you whether Utah is the best — or the worst — place for a woman in tech.

Lina Nilsson is senior director of data science product at Recursion Pharmaceuticals. She has written about women in tech in venues including the New York Times.