In September of 2016, AJ Vandermeyden filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against Tesla, her employer. The female engineer alleged the tech giant paid her less than her male counterparts, and ignored multiple complaints of sexual harassment she logged against her male coworkers.
Another Tesla employee said that women coworkers were so scarce, there were more men named Matt than there were women in her department.
Apple, Google, Uber and Facebook also face allegations of workplace harassment and gender discrimination.
In New York City, the nation’s second largest tech center after Silicon Valley, the problem is only slightly better. Men make up 68% of the city’s tech workers, compared to 53% of non-tech workers, according to the US Census Bureau.
Civic Hall, a tech-training center opening near Union Square in Manhattan, aims to reverse these trends and bring more women into the tech industry. The new center would act as a nexus for tech training and a breeding ground for tech startups.
The center would include a 40,000 square-foot digital learning center spread across 16 classrooms. It would also feature a 300-seat conference room and collaborative workspaces for tech startups developing digital solutions in the public interest.
Civic Hall, a nonprofit, would occupy six of the 22 floors in the new 254,000-square-foot Union Square Tech Training Center on 14th Street at Irving Place. The $250 million complex would also lease office space to tech startups and feature retail space on its ground floor.
The project, spearheaded by the NYCEDC and developed by RAL Development Services, plans to open in 2021.
“It is an open and inviting place for all to come, collaborate, share, learn and make, in ways that are tied to values of diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Andrew Rasiej, Civic Hall’s co-founder and CEO.
Civic Hall, with a $2 million grant from Cognizant Technology’s U.S. Foundation, has teamed up with the workforce development non-profit Per Scholas. Both Cognizant and Per Scholas have long histories of successfully bringing tech training to underserved populations.
Curriculum partners would also include The City University of New York, Mouse and General Assembly, among others. The center aims to turn out between 5,000 and 10,000 graduates per year.
Rasiej lined up investors to help launch the center, including Google, Luminate and Craig Newmark Philanthropies. Microsoft provided $100,000 towards the initiative.
Mayor de Blasio and other city officials have touted the center as an opportunity to train tech workers that would then join the city’s workforce.
“I am incredibly supportive of Civic Hall,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer. “It will create space for entrepreneurs to collaborate and foster their ideas, with the real potential to breathe life into New Yorkers who have dreams.”
But the project has not been without controversy.
Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation, has been a vocal opponent of the project. He is concerned that the public land on which Civic Hall would stand is being used for primarily for-profit commercial real estate.
RAL Development Services was chosen among other bidders after contributing $10,000 to Mayor de Blasio’s non-profit Campaign for One New York in 2015. RAL, along with a real estate investment unit of JPMorgan Private Bank, recently secured a 99-year lease for the property with the NYCEDC.
The Civic Hall site was upzoned—without landmark protections—despite loud objections from the community. After months of contention, the project received unanimous approval from the NY City Council, the City Planning Commission, and the Community Board of District 3.
The tech sector is now one of the largest drivers of the US economy, and is the second largest provider of high-paying jobs in New York City, after the financial services industry.
It’s also the fastest growing sector of the city’s economy. The tech industry added more than 46,000 good-paying jobs over the last ten years, according to a recent report commissioned by Civic Hall and prepared by HR&A.
But it’s still a male-dominated industry. Too few women are studying computer science. The hiring practices at tech companies are biased. Women in the field face sexual harassment and discrimination. And there is a lack of investment in women-run tech startups.
“If you were to look at the progression of engineering more broadly—it goes back to the 19th century at least—the active exclusion of women and people of color from domains that are coded as having technical expertise,” said Sarah Myers West, a research analyst at AI Now Institute.
The institute, a part of New York University, studies the causes and effects of gender bias in artificial intelligence and the tech industry at large. It has found that a lack of women in the field hurts innovation, perpetuates wealth inequality and undermines future global competitiveness.
Tamora Pettit is a lead instructor at General Assembly, a tech training organization and a partner with Civic Hall. She teaches UX design, a human-centered development methodology for tech products and services.
She said in her class of approximately 15 students, there are only four men.
“The design field is very attractive to women,” said Pettit. “We talk about having empathy for the users that will be using the products that they’ll be designing, and about having empathy for their classmates and their colleagues.”
In her classroom, students are encouraged to listen and support each other’s opinions. Pettit teaches them to work in groups, and provide feedback that is respectful and inclusive. At lectures, General Assembly is mindful about calling on both men and women to ask questions.
“As a woman in the tech industry for over 20 years, the biggest hurdle I’ve seen to women is being encouraged to share our opinions,” said Pettit. “And then be heard when we do share those opinions.”