‘I’m educated and just as experienced’

(Graphic by Lena Yang)

Local tech hub Communitech will be getting a boost in their recruitment of women over the next three years. The company will be funneling $300,000 from Status of Women Canada into the Communitech Women in Technology project, aimed at strengthening female talent recruitment and retention.

Karen Gallant, senior director of talent at Communitech, said that the initiative is meant to strengthen the tech workforce at Communitech as a whole.

“Talent for our companies is a challenge. There are lots of unfilled positions,” she said. “Women bring a particularly unique skill set and perspective into the workforce, so trying to create opportunities for them is obviously good for our companies because it will help them access that significant pool of talent.”

Communitech will be working with four other companies; Teledyne DALSA, Rebellion Media, Magnet Forensics and Desire2Learn – to establish a set of best practices for attracting more women to the tech workforce.

The project is part of an aggressive plan by the federal government to sink more money into bringing women into skilled technical trades. Status of Women Canada has invested more than $46 million in projects designed to focus on women’s economic security and prosperity.

“[It’s] making sure women have the skills they need to have a very high quality job,” said Minister of Labour and Minister for Status of Women Dr. Kellie Leitch. “They are able to have a good income and have good quality of life, and provide for their families.”

The number of women working in the IT and technology sector over the last 20 years has declined, despite the large role women have played in computer science historically. Status of Women Canada reports that less than 25 per cent of employees in the digital technology sector are women. As well, the number of women in top leadership roles in publically traded companies has been under 50 for a number of years, while the number of men is in the hundreds.

While Communitech certainly has female employees, Gallant said they don’t have particular numbers on the gender ratio at the hub.

For women in technology, the barriers to entering the workforce include pay disparity, a masculine workplace culture and cultural norms that discourage women from taking leadership roles. Angelique Mohring is CEO of Women Powering Technology, a Waterloo based group that encourages woman working in technology. She has experienced this first-hand working in digital economy for over 20 years.

“It is a tremendous uphill battle trying to…say I’m equal, I’m educated and just as experienced,” she said.

Mohring now owns her own tech company, GAINx, and mentors other women. She’ll also be assisting Communitech with their initiative.

As a mentor, Mohring tries to encourage women who may find it difficult to approach a boss about a raise or other workplace issues.

“There tends to be that reluctance to put themselves forwards in case they’re perceived as something less than generous, kind and smart,” she said, “and that if you’re not going with the status quo, you must be a bitch.”

Other digital technology centres in the region have also had issues recruiting women. University of Waterloo has one of the best computer science programs in the country, but over the last 20 years it has seen a decline in female students.

In 2011-12, just 12 per cent of undergraduate computer science students were women, compared to 18 per cent in 2001-02.

Kate Larson is an associate professor at the Cheriton School of Computer Science at University of Waterloo and is the chair of Women in Computer Science at the school. She explained that the problems with recruiting women into the tech sector start at the grade school level. “[Studies] find that very young girls are being turned off [of computer science] at a very young age – 8 or 9 years old.”

It is perhaps because of the idea that computer science is a lonely profession.

“The perception is that you’re going to be sitting in a dark room writing code all the time,” said Larson. But as the world gets more digitized, computer science is expanding into a number of other fields, making it all the more important to learn.

“Computer science touches on all fields and all problems now,” said Larson. “Sometimes we don’t do a good job explaining its role.”

Mohring also noted young girls are subject to the same gender stereotypes that might discourage them from taking leadership roles or being interested in science or math.

But the situation is not at all bleak for women who are interested in pursuing a career in technology. Larson and Mohring regard the Communitech project as a good step and Mohring has found reasons to be positive among many of her co-workers, female and male.

“I think there are more men coming to the table than ever before that are saying ‘how can we help accelerate women in tech and accelerate their careers?’” For her, it is essential that both men and women be at the table to ensure that progress is actually made.
At the end of the Communitech Women in Technology project, Gallant hopes to publish their findings so tech companies across the country can benefit from their outcome.

“It’s early days yet,” she said.

But it is an exciting time to start encouraging women to enter the tech field.

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