Montana High Tech Business Alliance: Why don’t women participate in our roundtables? It’s complicated.

Rep. Greg Gianforte, second from left, listens as Orbital Shift CEO Kevin O’Reilly talks about the federal challenges facing Missoula’s growing technology companies during a high tech round table held Monday morning in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

One of the benefits the Montana High Tech Business Alliance provides to our members is access to high-impact opportunities: referrals to news media looking for interviews; offers to speak as thought leaders on panels or podcasts; or, as has often been the case recently, invitations to VIP roundtable discussions with powerful decision-makers.

In the last six months, the Alliance has been asked to organize three such roundtables with founders and C-suite executives of Montana high-tech and manufacturing firms. In April, we hosted a discussion with Sen. Jon Tester and high-growth tech companies in Missoula. Earlier this week, we set up a similar meeting with Rep. Greg Gianforte. And we’ve just finalized the guest list for a roundtable with Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, on Sept. 5 in Bozeman.

These events provide unique forums for tech leaders to share their business concerns with national policy-makers whose decisions can positively impact their business. The discussions have, in some cases, led to multiple news stories, amplifying these concerns to a state and national audience. The roundtables have the secondary benefit of introducing founders and executives to their peers, prompting invitations to go have a beer together and talk shop.

Despite all the good that comes from these VIP meetings, this week we faced a difficult reality – hardly any women are attending. Besides female staff for the Alliance and elected leaders, head counts for women executives have been depressingly low, with one or no women seated at the table.

Commenters on social media rightly spoke up about the gender disparity this week when viewing photos taken by journalists. I received a phone call from one frustrated executive who attended and saw a room that was not representative of the makeup and values of our Montana tech community, the Alliance, or his company.

Alliance staff members share this frustration, doubly so because we arrived at this outcome after intentionally trying to make sure women were present. In all cases, the officials requesting the meetings asked us to bring diverse perspectives to the roundtables, including those of female executives. The Alliance has addressed the issue of gender equity in the news media, promoted inclusive innovation, and recently announced that 50 percent of the Alliance’s six Board of Directors members are female.

So how, I asked, did we end up with roundtables with so few women? Did we not invite enough women to begin with? Were women as likely as men to accept the invitations? I crunched the numbers for the three VIP events. What I found shocked me.

In order to form our VIP guest lists, we typically turn to firms that have been named to the Alliance’s Montana Top Tech Employers or Companies to Watch lists. This is a pool of 60 companies, and around 30 percent of them have a female co-founder or top leader. These top-performing Montana companies are nearly twice as likely to have a female executive at the top, as just 18 percent of our member companies overall have women leaders.

When planning VIP events, my rule of thumb is that about 50 percent of the executives we invite will accept, and this turned out to be accurate. The Alliance extended 58 invitations, and we had 28 RSVPs. Around 26 percent of the leaders we invited were women.

Men and women accepted our invitations at drastically different rates. Men said yes about 52 percent of the time. Women only said yes about 15 percent of the time. For around 27 percent of the invitations we extended to a woman, a man was sent in her place. When we invited a man, there was never an instance where a woman took his place at the table. In the end, only about 8 percent of the leaders attending the executive roundtables were female.

I cannot say for certain what conscious or unconscious decisions are leading to this gender disparity, or whether our events are inadvertently unappealing to women. But I hope by bringing it to the attention of our community, we can work together to do something about it.

Here are three ways we can bring more female executives to the table:

1. Leaders, insist on women being present.
Whatever statistical headwinds we might face, the Alliance and our partners must make it an imperative that roundtables, panels, and boards will include women, without exception. I am glad I received a call saying, “This is not acceptable.” Accountability is key to change. Nationwide, movements are calling on leaders to Say No to Man Panels and pledge that at public conferences they won’t serve on a panel of two people or more unless there is at least one woman on the panel, not including the Chair. We can hold ourselves to a similar standard in Montana.

2. Women, say yes more.
While certainly there are unavoidable reasons to decline an invitation, women might consider whether they can say yes more often. As female executives, their presence brings a unique and necessary point of view to the discussion and ensures that the diverse perspectives of Montana’s tech community are accurately represented. While male leaders may serve as capable representatives of your company, they are not a replacement for a female leader.

3. Men, nudge women to participate.
Male leaders could encourage women to come to the table more often. They might:

  • send a female co-founder or executive to represent the company
  • push back a bit if a female leader asks him to attend in her place, or
  • call up female peers at local tech companies to encourage them to show up.

I welcome your feedback and ideas on how we can solve this problem together. Contact Christina Henderson, executive director, at or 406-552-9157.

Christina Quick Henderson is executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance and adjunct professor of entrepreneurship, management and organizational behavior in the College of Business at the University of Montana.