Aimee Chan is the CEO and president of Norsat, a satellite communications company in BC. She recently went with the company’s purchaser on a buying trip in Asia. Noticeably, their hosts gave solicitous attention to the male purchaser – opening doors for him and pouring him tea – but Chan received no such attention.
The CEO laughs off the incident, but it illustrates what she calls “micro inequalities” – not overt discrimination but traditional or subtle biases.
“It’s embedded in the way people think,” says Chan.
In Canada, less than one in four workers in the information, communications, and technology sector is a woman. An even smaller percentage are in executive roles; in fact, less than five percent of board positions are held by women. Considering this, it is not so surprising that people would expect a visiting CEO to be male.
Women who have successfully forged careers in the technology sector agree that there are indeed ‘built-in’ biases in this field. However, there is a silver lining: despite the embedded biases, opportunities abound for women in tech. Here are what some female tech leaders are saying.
Judi Hess, CEO at CopperLeaf Technologies
Hess graduated from the University of Waterloo with a mathematics degree and on the dean’s honour roll. She immediately got a job offer, only to find out that a male Waterloo student was offered $2,000 more in salary for the same job. Hess stood her ground, asserting that she was a more valuable asset, until the recruiter matched both offers.
Hess has since held executive positions in companies such as Eastman Kodak, and now, she leads CopperLeaf, where about 35 percent of the employees are women.
“Women are definitely underrepresented in the tech sector,” says Hess.
Elizabeth Croft, Associate Dean at the UBC Department of Mechanical Engineering
For Croft, it’s not that there aren’t women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); it’s that the women in this field are “invisible”. In addition, she believes that the sector is “not inviting women”, and that female applicants have more reservations about applying for a job in STEM than male applicants do.
“If you have a party and you don’t invite people, they don’t show up,” she illustrates.
Croft emphasizes that hiring a diverse talent pool is important to get the best solutions not just in the field, but in the Canadian economy in general. But employers have to be deliberate about diversity. “We have to have a diversity plan,” says Croft, “because if you’re not intentional about doing it, it won’t happen.”
Lisa Shields, Founder of Hyperwallet Systems
“I never wanted to be a woman engineer – just an engineer; I never wanted to be a woman CEO – just a CEO,” admits Shields. But today, the award-winning tech entrepreneur speaks up about being a female in STEM, because a study has found that the number of women in tech is declining.
“It means something is definitely wrong,” says Shields, who believes that there is a “frat-boy culture” in the field. She says this is evident when seeking funding, when she realized that the entrepreneurs who got financed were those who had frat brothers in venture capital companies.
Sandra Wear, Co-founder of The docSpace Company
Wear echoes the observations of Lisa Shields regarding disparity in finance opportunities between men and women.
“At the end of the day, the power brokers are men,” says Wear.
But she wants to see women stand their ground in tech. Her advice for the female players in this field: “Network with people outside of your group.”
Gail Murphy, Associate Dean at the UBC Faculty of Science, and Co-founder at Tasktop Technologies
Murphy has another perspective on the lack of women in STEM: for her, there are more male engineers because that’s what has been available. She adds that there is actually fierce competition for female software engineers who graduate.
But the reason there are few such women is that women themselves don’t see their career options in technology.
Murphy herself almost dropped out early into her computer science course. “I think the early courses in computer science don’t really show the breadth of the kind of careers you can have in the field,” she ponders.
Now a professor and a tech entrepreneur, Murphy wants women to discover their true opportunities. “You can be hardcore into development… you can be a designer – there are just so many outlets,” she says. “It really is quite a large and varied industry.”