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Women in region's tech industry look to close gender gap

Last Updated Apr 18, 2017 at 9:47 am EDT

Laura Smith, co-founder of Pout, is one of the women looking to erase the gender gap in the region's tech community. Photo: Martin Bauman (570 News)

By Martin Bauman

It’s a question with no easy answer: how do we solve the lack of women in technology?

The region’s tech community is thriving, and more women are in leadership positions, but those in the community say there’s still work to be done.

Complicating the matter, says Dinah Davis, director of research and development for Arctic Wolf Networks, is that often, the discrimination women face is socially constructed and done sub-consciously.

“Typically, men will get promoted based on their potential, and women will get promoted based on what they’ve achieved,” says Davis.

“So you can see, it’s not that you’re not going to get promoted, but you have to work twice as hard to get there.”

Laura Smith, the co-founder of smartphone app Pout, agrees:

“Not only am I a woman in tech, but I’m a female developer, which is even more rare … [but] when someone approaches our team, they always assume that [my male co-founder] is the technical founder, and they’ll direct any questions to him, which is frustrating sometimes.”

Full interview with Laura Smith:

The founder of BinaryTattoo, Cat Coode, who worked over a decade in management at Blackberry, says there were certain things about working in a predominantly male environment that she only noticed later.

“I had been doing things to appear maybe less girly or less feminine,” says Coode.

“Sometimes I would be told not to bake cookies for my team, or at one point, I was referred to as a mama bear, because I had tried to get someone not to get my developer to do work.”

Ideas on how to solve the problem differ.

Davis feels part of the challenge is breaking out of these ingrained ideas of men’s and women’s roles — something that starts with the way parents raise their children.

“We’re still working against these things that are in our bodies and in our brains, [and have been] for the last how many generations, and it’s hard.”

Others point to high school, where teenage girls tend to stray away from science and technology interests.

“I always found it a bit of a barrier,” says Smith, a graduate of Sir John A. MacDonald Secondary School.

“It was really intimidating — it was just not even seen really as an option to take a programming course in high school. It seemed like you had to have done programming since you were 10 to even take the high school programming course.”

Still, others point to university, where men often vastly outnumber women in the technology and engineering fields.

“We had 90 people in our program, and there were six girls,” says Coode, who studied electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo.

“It was different,” says Smith, a graduate of software engineering at Western University. “We completely stood out.”

One thing Smith feels strongly about is the need for women startup founders to have supportive co-founders.

“As a female in the tech industry facing challenges, you need someone that’s completely in it with you,” she says.

As a whole, many women say the network formed by women in the tech industry has been a great help.

“The women who are in tech are really supportive of the other women in tech, which is amazing,” says Coode, a member of the Lean In group and the Women in Technology group.

“From that perspective, I think Waterloo is working really hard, especially through Communitech, to support the women who are either in tech companies that exist or are trying to start their own tech companies.”

For its part, Communitech runs an annual Women Entrepreneur Bootcamp, as well as the aforementioned Women in Technology group.

“I think the good news is that we’re actually seeing a groundswell of female founders and co-founders,” says Iain Klugman, CEO of Communitech.

“It’s relatively recent that this has started to emerge, but it’s very exciting.”

“I think part of it is, I see a lot of amazing success stories, and they’re all guys — and I know there’s women out there, but because of the disproportionate number of women who are currently running tech companies, there’s a disproportionate number of success stories,” Coode says.

“I think if we highlight more diversity, it will prompt people to believe they can be successful as well.”