Taking Daily Steps Toward Greater Diversity in Tech

Bringing equity to the tech world may actually be more attainable than it seems

By Lauren Jane Heller

Walking into a room filled with men in the early days of my career in tech wasn’t an unusual occurrence. To be honest, it still isn’t. But it was this experience that got me interested in who the other women working in the field were — the other women who were confident, brave or crazy enough to choose an industry where they would most likely need to adopt behaviours that didn’t feel authentic, ignore comments that made their skin crawl, or act like “one of the guys” in order to feel like less of an outcast.

The thing is, when I fell into tech after a decade of bouncing around film, publishing and marketing, I felt like I’d finally found my people. A group of nerds who were obsessed with creating solutions to the world’s biggest problems? Even if I was the only woman in the room, I was excited about the challenge. I wanted to be a part of it.

As I became more immersed in the Montreal tech ecosystem, I met a number of incredibly smart, successful women — entrepreneurs, computer science professors, engineers, marketers, product managers — who despite being in the minority were determined to work in technology and, in many cases, pave the way for other young women to do the same.

And as I spent more time working in startups and as a consultant, I discovered a few unexpected truths about the industry: most of the men I interacted with simply didn’t think about diversity. If they did, and knew that diversity drives innovation and improves business outcomes, they often had no idea what they could do to change the imbalance. When they were hiring new team members, they asked their friends or networks for referrals. Most simply didn’t think twice about the gender disparity until it was being broadcast in news headlines and on their social feeds.

The diversity problem…and solution

Tech’s diversity problem isn’t that women aren’t “apt” or “able” to work in tech. Women are just as capable of building and selling technology products as men. The issues are representation and inclusion: until we get more women into computer science classrooms, startups and leadership roles, girls and women will continue to hesitate to join or stay in the industry. And unless hiring managers, investors, startup founders and others in tech companies recognize their biases and behaviour, women will continue to be overlooked when it comes to technical and leadership positions and funding, and will continue to leave their jobs and the industry due to feelings of exclusion, voicelessness and frustration.

All that said, there’s a lot to be hopeful about. In the handful of years since I transitioned into tech, the world has changed. #MeToo brought the conversation about women’s (mis)treatment in just about every industry out into the public. Glass ceilings, the second shift and emotional labour have become familiar concepts that more people are working together to address and overturn. There are conversations happening that are changing people’s minds and more importantly, there is action. Women are stepping into the leadership roles they deserve, poor behaviour is (more frequently) being addressed rather than ignored, and more women are taking the plunge into entrepreneurship and going for the careers of their dreams. Bringing equity to the tech world may actually be more attainable than it seems but it is going to take a concerted effort from everyone from leadership down.

Small changes lead to big

Of course, change isn’t easy and even if we know that the results will be better — both for business outcomes and social value — millennia of patriarchy and inequality will be difficult to dismantle. What isn’t difficult, however, is making incremental change: taking small but important steps that will eventually accumulate into massive positive results.

Understanding bias

In order to know what to do, a great first step is understanding our biases and why it may be that we cast certain people in particular roles. When you imagine a computer engineer, chances are you have a certain type of person in mind. The same likely goes for an HR professional and a CEO. These stereotypes are based on your experience of the world. While they may seem accurate, they are, in fact, biased, as there is nothing intrinsically “female” about the “people” roles (customer service, communications, HR), nor is there anything essentially “male” about coding, finance or leadership. The fact that the latter are typically the higher-paid, higher-status positions is part and parcel of the gender stereotyping of jobs, which ultimately hurts everyone.

Further, there has been a historic social dynamic where young boys and men are taught that the world is theirs to conquer, and young girls and women are taught that they are supposed to be caring and supportive and not take up too much space. As a result, a brilliant female entrepreneur may not sell herself as effectively as her male counterpart, not because she isn’t capable of building a massively successful company but because she has been socialized to give credit to others and underplay her brilliance. The same goes for the engineer, product manager or marketer who doesn’t apply for a job because she doesn’t have 100 percent of the requirements, not realizing that a lot of men apply for and get jobs for which they’re underqualified.

So how do we help manage our biases? The biggest step is understanding that we have them. Then, it’s a matter of paying more attention and being vigilant about reminding ourselves and others that they exist.

How to get started:

  • Crescendo is a Slack app for continuous, curated diversity and inclusion education. In addition to their product that offers bite-sized diversity training throughout the workday, they just published this free Diversity & Inclusion Strategy Guide. They also have an excellent blog.
  • Facebook created a series of videos about understanding and managing bias. This free resource can help teams to understand how bias works and what can be done to change judgements and behaviours.
  • There are also dozens of organizations that now offer bias training workshops in just about every major city, as well as a host of free online courses.

Broadening the search

Startups often complain that it’s difficult to hire diverse employees, but that’s likely because they don’t know where or how to look. A first small change that can be made is reflecting on who your job descriptions target. What kind of language is used? Is this more likely to attract or repel women and minority candidates?

One tech company that’s doing exceptionally well with diversity is Slack, with 44.7% of their workforce comprised of women, according to their 2018 Diversity Report. In 2017, their team partnered with Textio to create job descriptions that would attract more women, using phrases like “care deeply” and “lasting relationships.” In contrast, Microsoft’s job postings featured keywords like “insatiably” and “competing.” Amazon’s keywords: “maniacal” and “wickedly.” Who do you think is more likely to apply to each company?

Tools for writing better job posts:

  • The aforementioned Textio is an augmented writing platform that “spellchecks” your writing for unconscious bias.
  • Kat Matfield’s Gender Decoder enables you to quickly check whether a job posting includes subtle linguistic gender-coding that is likely to turn off certain candidates.
  • Joblint “tests your tech job posts for issues with sexism, culture, expectations, and recruiter fails”.

In addition, Laurie Voss has created some excellent guidelines for writing inclusive job posts as well as an open source repository of former job descriptions.

There are also women-focused job boards, job fairs, recruitment events and online networks that can help companies source more diverse talent. The below are all relevant to the Canadian tech ecosystem.

And if you’re still struggling to find diverse candidates, it may help to be little more creative and take a long view. Plotly has succeeded in building a diverse team by creating an internship program that targets female undergraduate computer science students and encourages them to stay in computer engineering by showing them what lies at the end of their educational path.

Investing in the future

Speaking of the long view, it’s the steps we take now that will cascade into an egalitarian future. Small things like calling out event organizers when you see all-male speaker lineups, mentoring and opening our networks to women looking to advance or get into the industry, and helping fund organizations working to raise up girls and women, smash stereotypes and nurture burgeoning talent are all actions that have the potential to not just change but significantly improve the industry.

In just the past two years, the number of women-in-tech communities has exploded. Support them. Find events to sponsor, scholarships to underwrite, create internship programs and fellowships, offer your time as a mentor. Success in business is as much (or arguably more) about who you know as it is about talent: identify smart and motivated young individuals and train them to be future leaders. Help them to see that this world belongs to them too. The rewards will be great for everyone.

More resources:

General D&I:

Hire More Women In Tech not only states the case for why diversity is crucial to success but also lists numerous organizations and other resources that can help companies to both to find and hire more qualified women in tech.

Diversity at Startups by Homebrew is another resource that can help with hiring and retention.

A sampling of Canadian women in tech community organizations and initiatives:

Driving Women in Tech: In 2018, WiT conducted a Canada-wide, community-based research tour to develop the largest qualitative data set of its kind in Canada. Their forthcoming Gender Equity Roadmap will include their findings and recommendations for inclusion and promotion of women in the tech industry.

#Movethedial: An initiative that is working to increase the participation and leadership of women in tech. They hold numerous events and are launching a mentorship program in 2019.

Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWIST): A non-profit that has been working to get more women into science and tech since the 1980s. They run events, mentorship programs and other initiatives in Vancouver.

TechGirls Canada: A hub for Canadian women in STEM that condusts research and co-designs solutions to barriers for diversity. They offer resources for women working and trying to find work in the industry.

Technovation Challenge: An international competition that invites teams of girls to learn and apply the skills needed to solve real-world problems through technology.

WISEatlantic: an NSERC-funded initiative in Atlantic Canada that runs retreats and summer camps to get girls into STEM as well as networking and mentorship opportunities for professionals.

Women in Tech Manifesto: Signing the manifesto is a commitment to bring positive change to the Quebec tech industry. The group has also created a women-in-tech speaker list and code of conduct.

Women Taking Over The World With Tech (WTWT): A program based in Atlantic Canada that helps women working in tech to develop new skills.

Women Techmakers: An initiative led by Google, Women Techmakers is continually launching global scalable initiatives and piloting new programs to support and empower women in the industry.

Women Who Code: An international community of women working across all levels of the tech industry. They offer programs and services designed to help their members’ tech careers. They are active in Toronto, Waterloo and Vancouver.

30% Club: This organization runs targeted initiatives that look to broaden the pipeline of women at all levels, from “schoolroom to boardroom”.

Scholarships/coding education for women

Lighthouse Labs offers scholarships to exceptional women looking to begin their developer journey and give back to their community.

MPower Women in STEM scholarship focuses on women who will use their STEM degree to benefit society and the planet and who have the potential to serve as role models and advocates for women in STEM.

Palantir Women in Tech Scholarship: 10 scholarship recipients are chosen to participate in a full-day, all-expenses-paid developmental workshop in Palo Alto, California, and are awarded grants of $7,000 USD to support their education.

You can see lists of other STEM and technology scholarships here and here.

Funding for female entrepreneurs:

BDC Women in Technology Fund: Funding a support for women-led or co-led technology companies at the seed, Series A and Series B stages.

Femmesor: Equity capital investment for female-owned companies based in Quebec.

Opstart guide to business grants for women entrepreneurs: A list of grants available to women-led businesses

SheEO: A “radically redesigned ecosystem that supports, finances, and celebrates female innovators,” offering interest-free loans and support to women entrepreneurs.

StandUp Ventures: A VC fund that invests in seed-stage technology companies with at least one woman in a C-level leadership position within the company and an equitable amount of ownership.

Startup Canada Women Founders Fund: Micro-grants for women entrepreneurs and women-led companies in Canada.

Canadian accelerator programs for women founders:

DMZ Women Founders Accelerator: A Canada-wide program helping leading early-stage tech companies to achieve product-market fit.

Communitech Fierce Founders Accelerator: A 6-month learn-by-doing accelerator that .is designed to give women entrepreneurs the tools necessary to move from MVP to scalable business.

The Big Push: A women-led collective that supports women founders through a service-for-equity model.