Canadian tech sector not immune to sexism and discrimination of Silicon Valley

'We have to get past stereotypes and into skills'
Sexism

The sexism displayed in a controversial missive written by a now-fired male Google engineer is alive and well in Canada's tech sector, says one of the country's most prominent media bosses.

Former Twitter executive Kirstine Stewart says she wasn't surprised by the content of the internal letter, which went viral over the weekend, and cautioned anyone north of the border from being "holier than thou."

"Some of these opinions are borderless and I think that's why we have to be really diligent," says Stewart, also a former CBC executive who is now chief strategy officer with the online site Diply.

"I would caution anybody who thinks it's much better in Canada."

The widely shared letter, titled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber," ascribed the tech industry's gender inequality to biological differences and criticized Google for pushing diversity programs. The engineer was reportedly fired, with Google CEO Sundar Pichai denouncing his screed for "advancing harmful gender stereotypes."

"I hope people don't look at (this) and go, 'Well, that's just the crazy U.S.,"' says Stewart, who joined Diply after spending three years at Twitter, first in charge of Canadian operations and then as head of North American media partnerships.

"We stand up a bit more and call each other on it because it's closer, I guess, to the values that we talk about more publicly than they do in the States. But I don't know that we're performing any better."

The stories coming out of Silicon Valley in the past few months have been stunning: steady claims of sexism and discrimination surrounding titans like the taxi-hailing app Uber and the venture fund 500 Startups.

Stewart says she's experienced her share of incidents over a lengthy career and adds it's frustrating that things don't seem to be moving forward enough.

"I had a female manager say to me that their managers had said, 'Oh, we're hoping that on the team you would be the nurturing one.' There were too many stereotypes and we have to get past stereotypes and into skills," says Stewart.

"Why can't a woman just be skilled at what she does and actually not play some other role you're expecting her to?"

The associate dean of outreach at the University of Waterloo is keen to be part of the solution.

Mary Wells, also professor of mechanical and mechatronics, recently won an award for encouraging women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and says "there's absolutely been a culture shift" in recent decades.

The school's engineering curriculum includes discussion of such issues, but she admits more can be done to prepare both men and women for a new mindset.

"In first-year co-op a woman gets a job maybe before a male colleague, and right away he will say – and he's not trying to be mean – 'You must be their diversity hire,"' says Wells.

"The men can't believe that she can be just as good as he is or even better, and she also doesn't believe that she may be just as good as he is."

Jay Shah, director of the school's Velocity startup initiative for nascent companies, says even subtle shifts in language can welcome more women into the field.

In advertising recent pitch competitions, they ditched the usual words "entrepreneur," "fund" and "startup" in favour of "social impact" and "problem-solving" to help some students get over the hurdle of seeing their projects as viable companies.

Velocity runs an incubator called the Velocity Garage which boasts 80 companies, about a quarter of them with a female founder. Shah would like that number to be higher but says it's better than the industry average.

Gender consultant Steph Guthrie of TechGirls Canada says there's also more work to be done boosting racial diversity, with black, Indigenous and Latin people still sorely underrepresented.

"We're behind the U.S. in a lot of ways because we don't even have the data most of the time," says Guthrie.

"You need to have those numbers in hand if you're going to tackle the problem, you need to be able to drill down specifically, not just: Do we have enough women at our company, but, where are they working in the company?"

She dismissed the popular notion that schools need to bring more women into STEM fields.

"Here's the thing: Why would you want to study a subject to go and work in a field where you know you're not going to be welcomed?" says Guthrie.

"We're not actually doing these people a service by encouraging them to enrol in these programs. We have to treat it as both a pipeline problem and a retention problem."

Guthrie co-authored a diversity guidebook for startups called Change Together based on research with a Toronto software developer called The Working Group.

They released the report earlier this year as an "on-ramp" for other firms unsure of how to tackle the issue, noting many Canadian startups are small and simply don't have the expertise to lean on.

Guthrie says the company began to attract applicants from marginalized groups once it was public they were working on the issue.

"Once you start working on it, it's a domino effect. But you have to actually start tackling it and not just point the finger at universities and high schools to start giving you a better pipeline."