Feature: Help wanted: Women in tech

For all of the hype lately around Ottawa’s burgeoning tech scene, it’s easy to gloss over its shortcomings. Namely, this: for every woman you see working in high tech in Canada, there are three men. That ratio is even steeper when looking at women on boards of directors and in management positions at tech firms.

Critics say the gender gap is a glaring glitch in the inner workings of the technology industry. Mega-companies such as Google and Apple have recognized this, both making internal efforts to improve diversity (“Inclusion inspires innovation,” noted Apple CEO Tim Cook in announcing its endeavours).

Organizations such as the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) have prioritized promoting women in tech through research and mentorship channels. Women Powering Technology, a group that provides networking opportunities and skill-development workshops to female professionals, has an active chapter in Ottawa.

Local female entrepreneurs say Ottawa still has work to do to bridge the gender gap.

“It’s changed a little, but the majority of people in engineering and computer science are males,” says Debbie Pinard, CEO and co-founder of InitLive.

Pinard graduated from the University of Ottawa in 1979 with a degree in math and physics. She quickly found herself working for one of the biggest tech companies in the region: Mitel.

While there were a few women working at Mitel, even a few women directors, it didn’t take long for her to realize she was in the minority.

“I never really had heard about the glass ceiling, or knew that it was an issue in high tech because I never felt like I was treated differently. It wasn’t until you get older and you start to move up in the company that you start to see less and less females,” she says.

Perceptions of men and women would sometimes dictate the work they did, Pinard says.

“I used to joke about boy-code and girl-code,” she says, referring to the belief that men were more skilled at dealing with the physicality of hardware while women were better suited for user-interface, front-end work.

Sue Abu-Hakima, CEO and co-founder of Amika Mobile, is no stranger to fighting the gender battle in tech.

After graduating from McGill with an electrical engineering degree, she progressed towards a PhD in artificial intelligence while working for the National Research Council in the ’80s and ’90s. Despite her obvious aptitude, she says she was encouraged to take leave when her superiors assumed family life would hold her back from career and educational success.

“I was really mad. I got mad because it felt sexist. And NRC wasn’t unique in their approach to women,” she says.

The role of the family in a woman’s career can be a contentious issue.

The University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management has partnered with CATA and Springboard, a U.S.-based company aiming to promote female entrepreneurship, to take a closer look at the influence of family life on women’s careers.

Laurent Lapierre, lead researcher at Telfer, says the study aims to provide usable results for women looking to grow their business.

“How do women take family-related issues into consideration when deciding whether or not to grow their business? Is it always a negative? Is it sometimes a positive?” he asks.

For example, if a spouse or other family members make a priority of sharing the burden of home life, a female entrepreneur might feel more free to grow her business.

Pinard believes that talk of women being held back by their families is overstated.

“I don’t think that’s the reason why women don’t go into high tech,” she says. “I think that’s the easy way to explain it … Whether it’s male or female, the family has to support them.”

Where might one look to fix the gender gap?

Both Pinard and Abu-Hakima agree: society as a whole needs to do more to encourage girls to consider maths and sciences as viable fields of study.

“It starts much younger. In high school, no girl wants to be a nerd, or not very many. It’s just not cool,” says Pinard.

Dispelling the perception of so-called STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – studies as a boys-only club takes courage, but Pinard adds there is no reason at all why young women can’t be successful in those fields too.

“Just because there are men in the space doesn’t mean that women can’t do it. You shouldn’t be scared and look at ‘Well, it’s all guys,’” she says. “Women are just as capable as men. Don’t doubt.”

The creativity inherent to technology is often overlooked, Ms. Abu-Hakima says.

“What I love about being an entrepreneur is that you took an idea, which is nothing, which is like air … and all of a sudden, it becomes something real. It becomes a product that you can build,” she says. “That’s something that we have to turn on for kids. So they’ll be more turned on to technology.”

Lapierre’s team is still looking for female entrepreneurs willing to take the survey. Go to techopia.ca for the link to contribute.