Last June, 10 technology startups gathered in an auditorium near Moncton, N.B., for an event called Demo Day. The gathering allowed the companies participating in a new startup accelerator, Launch36, to unveil their product or service and — most importantly — pitch investors. One by one the various company chief executives stepped on stage. Among them was Paula Morand — the only female chief executive in the group.
Her experience is mirrored across the country. Women are noticeably under-represented in the technology sector, particularly at the executive level.
The trend is best revealed in numbers compiled by Canadian Women in Technology (CanWIT), a volunteer organization that aims to raise the number of women in the tech sector. The data show women make up 47% of the overall Canadian workforce. Yet they comprise just 24% of the tech sector workforce. An even smaller percentage of women hold management positions within the field. In the third quarter of 2012, 14,000 women left the tech sector labour force. By comparison, only 2,000 men departed the sector.
The Information and Communications Technology Council noted there were 155,000 women in the tech sector in the third quarter of last year, down 12% from a year earlier. Meanwhile, the sector contained 571,059 men, up 5% from the year before.
Ms. Morand, a long-time entrepreneur, is relatively new to the tech scene. Her company, GoLead, developed software that tracks employee satisfaction and productivity at large companies. The goal is to boost corporate bottom lines by increasing worker productivity and engagement.
GoLead’s software will soon be deployed with a group of pilot companies. Ms. Morand has raised $250,000 from investors and is hoping to raise another $500,000. Within five years, she predicts GoLead will have $20-million in revenue and 400,000 users.
Despite previous entrepreneurial success, Ms. Morand said she initially found it difficult to earn the respect of tech sector insiders. “It’s been extremely challenging on many levels,” she said. “It’s been mentioned a number of times that maybe we should hire a male CEO.” Her advice to women in the sector seeking investment: “Know your stuff, develop a thick skin and just keep forging ahead.”
So why does Ms. Morand think women avoid the technology sector? “I don’t know, but maybe the bags under my eyes are a clue,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a lot of work.”
Catherine Boivie, meanwhile, blames lingering misconceptions. “There’s a perception that it’s a nerdy profession where all you do is code,” said the chief executive and chair of CanWIT. “It is not a propeller-head profession. It is a business profession.”
“Women don’t realize just how much human interaction there is… This is a fun profession.”
It’s also one that, in many cases, offers flexible hours and the opportunity to work from home, two options sought by women seeking a healthy work-home balance.
Ms. Bisheban said her career in the tech sector has provided a challenging yet beautiful life. “I would encourage any young girl to consider a career in tech,” she said.
Still, one sad fact stands out from her 20 years in the tech field: all of her employers have suffered from a lack of women in the middle management and executive ranks.
“It is a trend. And it’s not just in Canada. It is everywhere in the world,” she said. “The technology field is not benefiting from equal input from its female participants.”
As the co-chair of CanWIT’s Waterloo chapter, Ms. Bisheban is trying to change that. For instance, the group runs mentoring programs aimed at connecting young women with established tech sector players.
Such efforts are encouraging, but Arlene Dickinson insists a change of perspective is also required at the male-dominated board level. “It takes a strong man to say, ‘Stop… We need to rethink our structure at a board level and at a senior executive level’,” the Dragons’ Den panelist and chief executive of Venture Communications said.
“It requires a change in mentality and approach. And it also requires women to continue to push their way forward.”
Ms. Boivie earned a PhD in expert systems before holding the post of chief information officer at four organizations, including Vancity, the country’s largest credit union. She is currently the executive-in-residence at Simon Fraser University, where she is working to boost the number of women enrolled in the school’s Management of Technology MBA program. Ms. Boivie also sits on four boards, where she provides advice on technology-related issues.
She said her knowledge of technology continues to open all sorts of doors. “It has given me incredible opportunities.
“We need to get to the girls at the high school level, before they decide what they want to do,” she said.
According to CanWIT, only 25% of the students enrolled in Canadian undergraduate math and computer science programs are women. That number has remained stagnant in recent years, while the percentage of women in graduate level math and computer science programs has actually dropped.
Nastaran Bisheban plans to sell her two daughters on a career in the tech sector. The software engineer now works for Canadian Tire Corp., and she has worked for Research in Motion, Siemens and CIBC.