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So what’s up with women in tech?
On one hand, there are women-in-tech conferences, groups called Women Taking Over the World in Tech and organizations encouraging women to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM fields.
Banks and major management firms release study after study telling us that more women in tech improves business performance and boosts the bottom line.
There are greater numbers of women entrepreneurs than ever before and they too are performing well.
Women are still under-represented in the tech workplace. They earn less money, have more difficulty raising capital and face cultural barriers that block their advancement to leadership roles, force them out or prevent them from entering the field in the first place.
According to a benchmark study released in 2017 by an organization called Move the Dial, the accounting firm PwC and the MaRS project, only six per cent of Canadian tech companies have a female CEO, 13 per cent of tech company have women on their executive teams and women make up only eight per cent of board directors in tech companies.
This flies in the face of research showing that companies with women on their boards, perform better, much better than those without. A 2016 study by Catalyst found that companies with more women on boards performed 53 percent better. Improvements were measured by returns on sales, returns on equity and capital investment.
So the question is why? Why, in 2019 and in a data-driven industry like tech where talent is in huge demand and on which future economic prosperity relies — why are women not as welcome?
Women are using the products invented by tech, they bring new ways of thinking and doing things and widen the collective intelligence of tech companies.
This would be the dictionary definition of “innovation” in an industry that is all about innovation.
And yet, again.
Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised when you consider the high-profile stories of sexual harassment, gender-discrimination and other workplace abuse encountered by women working in media, technology and other fields.
That would the hard edge of sexism and misogyny, but there are also biases — sometimes unconscious — that work against women.
Gender-based stereotypes start at a young age when girls are steered away from STEM education and jobs.
According to a study by the Organization for Economic Development (OECD) females who do enter STEM education and careers perform as well as their male counterparts but they are underrepresented in those disciplines.
This is a challenge identified by Michelle Simms, President and CEO of Genesis innovation hub in St. John’s.
“There are simply not as many women in STEM as there are men so there is smaller population base. As women get into tech sector, there are fewer role models and mentors around them. If they don’t see female role models and leaders they thing they can’t see themselves there.”
If they do enter the tech workplace or start a company, they face more barriers and cultural biases that have to do with what tech entrepreneurs look like in the first place. Too often a tech start-up generates visions of twenty-something males working on ideas from college dorm rooms — a Mark Zuckerburg starting Facebook at Harvard.
Less funding for women
But for women in tech, the rubber really misses the road when it comes to financing. Even though women founders represent 47 percent of business in Canada, women receive only four percent of available venture capital.
The problem is that the majority of the people investing are men. If they are biased toward other men, women get left behind.
According to the Canadian Venture Capital Private Equity Association (CVCA) only 12 per cent of partners in venture capital firms are women.
Tech entrepreneur Stephanie Holmes knows this well. She is founder of the Halifax-based fintech company Cashflo, a behaviour-based software that helps clients management their spending habits.
“When I’m before a venture capitalist, the first or second question is ‘how many children you have,’” she said. “When I ask male entrepreneur if they get asked how many children they have, they spit their beer out their noses.”
The answer is no, men do not get asked that question.
Holmes said mentorships, female peer-groups and role models are helpful, but what women really need to succeed in tech is equal access to capital.
What is being done?
These experiences have not gone unnoticed and in 2018 there was a groundswell of initiatives designed to close the gender gap in tech and business.
Last year the federal government announced a $2-billion program called Women in Entrepreneurship to help start and grow their businesses by improving access to capital, talent and networks.
As part of that BDC, the Crown-owned bank for entrepreneurs, announced a $200-million fund to invest in women-lead technology companies. CVCA also announced a diversity and inclusion initiative to boost the number of women in venture capital.
There are other ideas too.
Halifax’s Paula Minnikin is partner in a tech start-up and has been been a tech consultant for 30 years. She thinks the gender gap can be addressed quickly by requiring diversity on the boards of start-ups supported with public money.
Her research has shown that companies that have received public funding have less than 20 percent of women on their boards.
“This is publicly funded misogyny,” she said. “This is wrong. We cannot wait. Every day we wait to change this is a day we vote for misogyny.”
She agrees with studies that have shown that women on boards produce positive outcomes for the bottom line of tech companies.
“It’s simple. It costs the government nothing. It improves business outcomes. It improves social outcomes. It does not need to be studied. Any company that contracts with or accepts investment money from our governments needs to have an equitable board.”
Another solution comes from a made-in-Canada organization called SheEO.
“SheEO a social experiment,” said Halifax business consultant Judith Richardson who has been involved since the beginning in 2015. “It is creating a new economic model.”
Women called “activators” contribute money to a pool which is loaned to women-lead ventures who make pitches for financing. Loans are made at zero-interest to small groups who then split in investment amongst their businesses. They pay the money back as debt rather than traditional models of venture capital investment.
There is good news too. At Volta, the innovation hub in Halifax, the gender balance is almost 50-50 .
At Genesis in St. John’s Michelle Simms sees changes happening with education programs, workshops and mentoring encouraging more women in tech and tech leadership roles.
“If you look at Genesis five years ago we didn’t have a single female founder, today have we 30 percent. In the same time period the female peer group at Genesis has gone from seven to 130.”
Gail Lethbridge is a writes political opinion columns for The Chronicle Herald. She’s lived in the UK but is happy to be home in Nova Scotia.
“When you support women everyone rises together”
In honour of International Women’s Day and the 2019 theme of #BalanceforBetter our entire edition has been crafted by women, about women and for women in Atlantic Canada.
In the meantime, we’re also making a commitment to diversity and gender equality in this publication. Whether it’s through the writers we hire, the people we interview or artists we collaborate with, diversity and equality remains an integral part of the stories we tell and who gets to tell them.
As Gloria Steinem, world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist once explained, “The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”