How Do We Get More Women in Tech?

Members of the Atlantic Canada’s tech community say the industry needs more women – and it’s up to all of us to help make that happen.

Getting more women into the tech and the other STEM fields is an issue T4G vice president Cathy Simpson is very passionate about. With good reason.

Cathy Simpson

While female enrollment is up across the board in many STEM subjects, recent numbers show the number of women pursuing technology fields south of the border has actually declined over the past 20 years. At home, while enrollment in computer science has been increasing at the University of New Brunswick, only 11 per cent of its students are female (based on the latest available numbers from 2015). Simpson says the low numbers are also reflected in senior business leadership.

“When I look at senior leaders in this field, in the tech industry, the dominance of men over women is overwhelming,” Simpson says.

Getting more women interested in tech must start at a young age, which is a challenge, Simpson says. There are a few reasons why girls may not be as inclined to explore technology. One of them is the fact that they don’t see others like themselves doing it.

“What I find with the work I’ve done with girls and the work I’ve done in this field is that women look for role models. Girls look for other young women and other older women as their role models. If they’re not seeing a lot of specific roles being women, they don’t see role models,” Simpson says. “If after school there are tech clubs and none of their friends said that they’re going to go, then they’re probably not going too. I’m a firm believer in that if people don’t see women in the roles, they don’t associate themselves as strongly going into that role.”

This is a problem, since getting girls interested around middle school is key. According to a report by Accenture and Girls Who Code, without a broad-based strategy that sparks and sustains girls’ interest in computing from middle school through college, the percentage of women in computing will fall from 24 per cent to 22 per cent in 2025. That’s a big drop from 37 per cent in 1995.

“It’s too late if we don’t get them when they’re in middle school,” Simpson says. “That’s what I think is fascinating. Girls’ confidence starts to go down in middle school, their interest starts to go down at that pace and it just keeps showing through high school, through college, etcetera.”

Carries Forbes

Perception of the tech industry itself can be another deterring factor. Carrie Forbes, director of solutions at Halifax-based League Data, a tech provider for Atlantic Credit Unions, is also an advocate for women in tech. She entered the technology industry with Scotiabank in 1999  when Internet banking was emerging. She says the rise of the Internet made technology and computers exciting to both men and women, but when the Dot-com bubble burst, there was a decline in women who saw tech as a viable career they could fit into.

I think one of the problems, particularly that Dot-com era really seminated what I see today, is this ‘macho cowboy’ approach to technology. I think for a lot of women and girls, they believe they have to be a Big Bang Theory geek or they have to be into sci-fi or this kind of subculture of geekiness,” Forbes says.

“I think over time this very male culture around technology that’s driven by pop culture too, has created the perception that it’s a “bro” kind of thing, it’s a boy’s thing, When really, it’s so not true.”

For Simpson, it comes down to changing the way we show women the various possibilities in the tech sector by giving them real-life stories and role models.

“Part of the change is the way we teach and the people we’re putting in front of these girls and women. The more you can see yourself, the more likelihood you are to try it and stick with it,” Simpson says. “Girls need stories. Women need stories that are going to interest them in exploring [technology] even further and take risks.”

It was a role model who helped get Sarah Taaffe, a public sector analyst and one of T4G’s four recent female hires, to where she is today. Taaffe graduated from Renaissance College at the University of New Brunswick with a minor business and a focus on entrepreneurship. Upon graduation, she was recruited by Hotspot Technologies for a marketing and communications role. With no prior tech education or experience, it was here that she was first exposed to working with data.

“I became more aware of technology through the company, like their app and some of their beacon technology and started to understand the role of data and how data-driven decision-making can really impact a company’s productivity and help them provide more direct services,” Taaffe says.

With the encouragement of HotSpot’s COO Erin Flood, Taaffe became more involved with the company’s projects, including the Pattern of Life, a data project in uptown Saint John. Taaffe soon discovered she had a new passion.  

“When I had first started, being able to have Erin there as a sounding board and someone to work with I think was huge in developing my passion. Someone who championed the things I wanted to explore and was also eager about them,” Taaffe says.

Without Flood’s mentorship, she says she may have ended up on a different career path.

“She’s been a huge role model and supporter in nurturing that passion for tech and data. Just not having any technical background and not really having worked in the space prior and being able to have someone to expose me to that side of things was really eye-opening,” Taaffe says. “I think it was huge in shaping where I am right now. Had she not been there, I don’t know if I’d be where I am now.”

Taaffe says organizations like Ladies Learning Code are important when it comes to getting more girls excited to explore technology and other STEM fields. Having had no prior experience working in the tech sector before HotSpot, she says it’s also important to show young women the different roles in the field. You don’t necessarily need a computer science degree to be a part of it.

“I really think telling some of those stories and humanizing some of the work being done in the STEM fields will help people understand it,’ she says.

Cathy Simpson says everyone has a role to play in encouraging more girls and young women to explore a career in tech. Parents, governments and schools need to work together. Examples of this are already happening, like the work Brilliant Labs is doing in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia schools and the Nova Scotia government introducing coding into the school curriculum. But Simpson says the private sector has a responsibility too.

“I don’t expect the government to fix all of this or to have programs everywhere,” she says. “I think organizations like TechImpact and private companies like T4G and others organizations with big IT departments, they need to play a role in that too.”

Next week T4G, Innovatia, J.D. Irving, Bulletproof Solutions, Atlantic Lottery and Mariner Partners, Ernst & Young and the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation are teaming up to screen the film Hidden Figures in Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton. Following the screening will be a discussion about women in tech, featuring New Brunswick women in the audience already working in the sector.

“We need to make it clear to all our kids, especially younger girls that there are a lot of great opportunities in the IT space, but you don’t have to be a programmer or network person, you can find ways to bring your strengths to this new world,” says Carrie Forbes.

“There are so many different avenues, but we’ve got to show that to them. We also need to create opportunities for them to participate, to have fun with it, to figure out that this is part of our everyday life.”