There has never been a better time for women to get into the tech sector but it’s up to them to grab the opportunities: that was the advice from an all-female panel hosted at Ottawa’s You.i TV on Thursday, International Women’s Day.
The Women in Leadership panel featured You.i TV’s own Trisha Cooke, as well as Jenna Sudds, the executive director of the CIO Strategy Council, and Sheila James, the vice-president of operations at Veem, a San Francisco-based startup with offices in Ottawa.
Discussion focused on the barriers and opportunities facing women in the tech sector.
James was blunt about why, at the age of 14, she followed her mother into the demanding industry.
“I was poor. And I did not like being poor,” she told the crowd.
It was there, working in a data processing bureau, that James recalled seeing a woman whose body had been broken by the long hours and intense work she was putting in to stay afloat in a male-dominated field. That drive inspired her to become a serial entrepreneur, she said.
“She didn’t care that it was killing her, what it did to her body, but she was there and she was competing with the men and she was doing what she had to do to get it done. And I was like, ‘I can do this.’”
Sudds, a relatively new entrant into the field compared to Cooke and James, says the cultural impressions of tech as a man’s game persist today. In her time as executive director of the Kanata North Business Association, she says she was told flat-out that her role was “a man’s job.” She added, in response to the gasps in the room, that “we proved them wrong.”
When she left that job last October, Sudds told OBJ she was disappointed by the number of female applicants to replace her. At that time, only 25 of the 105 applications were from women. The KNBIA remains without a permanent executive director.
The main takeaway from the panel discussion was this: It’s uncomfortable to be a woman in tech, so you have to want it – passionately. Once you decide you want it, James said, you have to apply yourself to being the best.
“You need to be tech savvy to contribute and compete and be able to have intelligent conversations with your customers and collaborate with your peers. That’s the key to success in this industry,” she said.
Sudds said you have to lean into the uncomfortable feelings that come out of networking or working in a room full of men.
“In my current role now, I can’t tell you how many times I walk into a meeting full of men … It’s not always comfortable. You find it in yourself to get through it,” she said.
“If it’s scary, it’s probably the right thing to do.”
Now a 25-year “veteran” of the industry – even though the v-word made her queasy – Cooke said there’s nothing inherent to women that inhibits them from being successful in tech. The only limitations, she said, are the ones women place on themselves.
“We all exist today with the capacity to make anything a level playing field … We’ve got everything we need to be successful,” she said.
“Just when you define, as a woman, what you think success is, and you think big – think bigger.”
Watch the video above for the full panel discussion, as well as an opening Q&A with the president of Women in Nuclear, Heather Kleb.