Zendesk to Host Women at Work Panel Oct. 18

Our city’s startup founders and hard-working engineers like to brag that tech is the most innovative industry. But is it bold enough to change the makeup of the work place?

That’s what Innovation Month participating company Zendesk will ask during its October 18 panel focusing on women in tech… and why there aren’t more of us. It’s a pervasive problem in this field, one Zendesk’s CEO Mikkel Svane faces everyday. “Go to our engineering department. It’s a sausage fest,” he said. “That can’t be good for how we build our product.”

Panelists for this evening event include Zoosk CFO & COO Kelly Steckelberg, Vayable CEO Jamie Wong, BlackGirlsCode Founder Kimberly Bryan, Women 2.0 VP Sepi Nasiri, and Zendesk’s Senior Software Engineer Saroj Yadav. Bloomberg’s Senior West Coast Correspondent Jon Erlichman will moderate. (Want to attend? You should RSVP now.)

Tiffany Apczynski, Zendesk’s Community Relations and PR Manager, said she had the idea for the panel after reading article after article condemning or questioning Marissa Mayer’s rise to Yahoo! CEO while pregnant – scrutiny that an expectant father would never receive. She also pointed to the intense conversations around The Atlantic’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” article and investor Dave McClure’s TechCrunch post calling on women to become investors themselves. “Everyone needs to be a part of this conversation,” she said.

For Apczynski, the issue is a very personal one. She was preparing for a 5-month maternity leave when we spoke, and coincidentally she had the same original due date as Marissa Mayer. Despite her pride in seeing a fellow woman rise to CEO of a major company, she wondered if she could do the same herself. “I’m still conflicted. I think it’d be so victorious. She must be so proud of herself. But here I am not even having pushed this kid out yet and thinking ‘is five months enough?’”

Women throughout the city and the country experience this conflict daily, and we lose out on more women CEOs because of it. “Women need to let go of a lot of guilt,” Apczynski said. “Women will continue to fall behind if they’re worried about home life.” Of course, our culture could also be more supportive of good fathers instead of showing the typical “idiot dad” we know all too well in TV and movies. This attitude is slowly changing: “We as a society are now saying, ‘it’s okay for you to be an involved father,’” Apczynski said.

Beyond the sea change in cultural attitudes, there’s still a lack of supportive services in the country for working mothers, such as free childcare or government-mandated paid maternity leave as this infograph can confirm.

But perhaps most important, our leaders and CEOs need to evangelize for the women in their organization, whether in actively recruiting and retaining female engineers, supporting programs that get women into STEM careers, or developing company policies that benefit working mothers. Apczynski said Zendesk has been a perfect model of such a company, although she doesn’t feel the same about many other startups. “I feel comfortable enough to be pregnant in this company.”

“I was nervous to leave. Fortunately those fears have been put aside,” Apczynski said of taking maternity leave. Zendesk worked with her so she could easily go to doctor’s appointments, telecommute certain days, and of course, take off five months without fear of losing her position. “No one’s treating me like i’m injured, but they are supporting me.”

These cultural, legislative, and leadership solutions are just a few of the possible answers the Zendesk panel will address. Apczynski’s goal is to keep the conversation focused on such solutions while avoiding getting mired in discussions about the root of the problem. “We know it’s hard for women to be moms and work. We know there aren’t a lot of women in [STEM] careers.” She hopes the audience will be a broad mix of men, women, workers and decision makers. “It’s everyone’s issue,” she said. “You have plenty of the opposite gender in your life that you love.”

For Svane, Zendesk’s founder, working on the issue is also good business. “One of the ways to build a strong company is to build a company that reflects the world around us.” It also might help them win the ongoing Silicon Valley Talent War. “We want to expand our recruiting base. If we get more women to code, we can double our recruiting base.”

Join these forward thinkers and leaders next week at Zendesk’s panel. RSVP now to secure your spot!

Image courtesy of naezmi.