When attendees walked into the BSidesLV Hacker Conference this past August, which is sponsored by tech companies like Yelp, Microsoft, BlackBerry, they were welcomed with a "colosseum" of condoms. You can imagine the discomfort that would induce amongst the women at the event, given the alarming prevalence of reports of sexual harassment against women at tech conferences in the news.
Contrasting that, on a sunny weekend in Junemore than 100 people came together for Startup Weekend Peel at Microsoft Canada headquarters. The organizers prioritized gender parity as a core tenet for the event and succeeded by ensuring women made up one half of all mentors, judges, coaches, and facilitators. Perhaps logically, almost half the participants that registered, ended up being women. Four of the eight teams selected to compete were led by women, an unexpectedly perfect illustration of parity.
In the world of technology, where women are paid less, harassed more, and deprived of choice assignments for the stereotypical fear of leaving their jobs to raise families; gender parity is desperately needed at highly visible, media-intensive events geared to apprise tech movers and shakers on what to expect in the near future, to define the new "normal."
Speakers at conferences have power. Identified as authority figures, who they are and what they represent carries enormous influence. When every panelist is a white male, what does that say to the diverse range of women and men in the audience? It says that you don’t belong there. It says that you do not have authority. And the ramifications of that spill outside of conferences and into corporate boardrooms, HR policies, and how consumer technology is designed.
In 2014, this is unacceptable. In fact, it is downright shameful.
As participants, as organizers, as attendees, as speakers, as panelists, we have a collective and individual responsibility to demand change. Here are a few key places to start:
If you are a man— particularly a white male—you need to acknowledge that you are surrounded by a system of privilege, one that is so omnipresent that it is likely invisible to you (John Scalzi illustrates this well here). Please use your position of privilege-by-default to be an agent of change.
When you are invited as a speaker or panelist at an event, ask how many women are a part of the panel or speaker line are up. Refuse to speak on all-male panels. Take the #genderbiaspledge and tell organizers that gender parity is an important value to you, and that you will only speak/participate if there are women on the panel. Make public statements to this effect. Tweet about it. Encourage dialogue with your peers. Be an ally by publicly supporting others who are doing the same.
If you are a woman, know that we can make an incredible difference by signal-boosting one another. If you are the token woman on a panel, ask that the organizers aim for parity. Refer other expert women in the industry. Don’t settle for just one token representation—demand media and tech organizations to put parity on their top 3 priorities when creating these trailblazing events. Don’t be shy, and don’t be quiet. Speak up, and speak loudly, and often, and don’t stop until they listen. List yourself in resources such as Code Women Speakers and TechGirls and refer event organizers to these resources to source other speakers through.
Organizers have an obligation to make diversity and gender parity a high priority on the agenda or the symbols of innovation that our tech events need to be will stay stuck in these lopsided representations that perpetuate toxic environments of misogyny, racism, ableism and homophobia while alienating a large portion of engaged audience members.
As the public, we have an obligation as well. Our complacency allows this cycle to continue. We are complicit in this imbalance. We need to start questioning the status-quo. Call-out conferences and organizations that don’t explicitly aim for gender parity. Let’s make a collective fuss about how we want the world and workplaces structured for ourselves and the generations to come.
We can’t continue to flaunt the abysmal statistics about diversity around and lay it all on women not opting for science and technology careers. As Fortune Magazine recently noted, women leave tech because of the culture, not because "math is hard."
We need to stop pretending that online rape and death threats; hurled at women on a devastatingly regular basis, and the offline gap in gender parity are unrelated.
This hostility is toxic for women as well as men and fixing it is the responsibility of all stakeholders and influencers in the sector.
Tech’s diversity problem isn’t so much the pipeline - it is the entrenched patriarchy, and it’s high time we eroded that.
For our high-potential hallows of tech to be a reflection of equitable opportunity and an acute reflection of the world at large, it shouldn’t feel like we’ve walked through a dude-bro warp zone with 2% to 14% women on the flip side.
Overhauling systemic biases takes time and effort. You have to work at it, each and every day, every single time. It requires conviction, leadership, foresight and a whole lot of tenacity. It also produces remarkable results. Startup Weekend Peel proves that gender parity is not only possible, it is infectious and tide-raising and impactful.
We should start with events as the emblem of parity. No more excuses.
Bigotry must be entering its own kind of cretacious period, because it’s slowly beginning to get harder for dinosaurs to roam the great plains of our most influential industries. While white men still dominate much of politics, mainstream media, technology, entertainment and other key sectors, attitudes of overt exclusion (or worse) toward women and other underrepresented groups are slowly becoming a risk for those who hold power.
As social media users begin to learn what kind of power they hold, too often the risk of bigotry in leadership is quantified in public relations terms. Progress is hollow when things like racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of less-than-human treatment are treated as more “brand” problems (personal or commercial) than, you know, societal ones. Treating bigotry like a PR crisis snuffs out the potential for honest reflection about how it subtly takes shape in our psyches, the harm it causes, and how we might perpetuate it.
While he allegedly dries out, do you think Toronto Mayor Rob Ford will be doing much reflection on the misogynist comments he made about his colleague and competitor Karen Stintz, and how those comments might contribute to a climate where women make up only 33 per cent of Toronto city council (an all-time high)?
Is disgraced L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling going to give some serious thought to how his business practices and personal views impact black people, the NBA and America at large?
Is Brendan Eich likely to finally take his colleagues’ concerns about his views on gay marriage to heart and change his tune on the whole thing, now that he’s resigned his position as CEO of Mozilla and disappeared from the public eye?
It is nice to think so. However, a look at recent controversies in the tech and politics sectors sows doubt in that claim. While social media makes it harder to get away with being a misogynist, homophobic or racist leader, the reactions that ultimately removed Eich and Sterling from their thrones are fighting against a tidal wave of opposing reactions that tolerate and justify their bigotry.
Some react with outright dismissal, whether they dismiss the incident’s significance or the whistleblower’s reliability or validity. And usually, dismissing the former also means dismissing the latter. In a recent Silicon Valley example, Julie Ann Horvath says she had to quit her job as a respected programmer at GitHub due to a hostile work culture where gender-based harassment (from sources as far up the chain as a co-founder) was consistent and tolerated.
A month after she aired her allegations, GitHub reported that an “independent third party” investigation “found no evidence to support the claims” against the founder Horvath had named, for any “sexual or gender-based harassment or retaliation, or of a sexist or hostile work environment.” That’s a pretty sweeping statement, especially when they followed it up with, “However, while there may have been no legal wrongdoing, the investigator did find evidence of mistakes and errors of judgment.”
After the resignation of the founder Tom Preston-Werner (despite his implied innocence), prominent investors and influencers in the tech community took to social media to state that they stood firmly behind “both GitHub the company and Tom the person.”
Outright dismissal like this sends the message that no matter how you handle discrimination in your workplace, your voice will be trumped by corporate and legal litany intended to silence, discredit and, frankly, outlast the stamina of any one person seeking change or justice.
Others react with trivialization, insisting the transgressor’s anomalous actions are the exception to the rule of an otherwise tolerant industry and society. Take the case of millionaire tech CEO Gurbaksh Chahal, who vehemently argued on his personal blog that, despite widely reported security camera evidence, he was innocent in brutally hitting and kicking his girlfriend 117 times.
Reader comments on Chahal’s blog range from agreement that this whole thing is a set-up because he is wildly successful, to some variation of “he’s just a human being / it was a misjudgment / pobody’s nerfect.”
This trivialization absolves the perpetrator of accountability by suggesting the victim somehow provoked the reaction (or perhaps ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time). It also snatches these egregiously violent examples from the misogynistic white noise that makes up the broader context of Silicon Valley and, in many subtle ways, encourages its denizens to stand behind their Gurbaksh Chahals.
If commenters are not dismissing or trivializing the incident, they’re often tone-policing those who speak out by labelling them flippant, overly emotional, or “too aggressive” in their complaints (“If you’d just be nice about your oppression…”). Examples of this approach in politics abound, from British Prime Minister David Cameron repeatedly telling MP Angela Eagle to “Calm down, dear” when she responded passionately in the House of Commons; to Calgary Tory Len Webber quitting the Tory caucus earlier this year, citing his official reason being that Alberta Premier Alison Redford wasn’t a “nice lady.”
The tone argument is a form of derailment, a red herring, because the tone of a statement is independent of its content, and calling sole attention to the tone distracts from the content that begs to be addressed. Furthermore, an angry tone is often a long-simmering response to more nebulous forms of verbal hostility like condescension or passive-aggression. Why are these forms of treatment “fair” but getting angry is not?
We react by getting angry about bigotry, especially among the leaders and decision-makers in fields like politics and technology that build the policies and tools that govern our lives. Bigotry is not a PR problem. It is a deep-rooted societal problem. Bigoted views cannot be simply cordoned off from the rest of a bigot’s life and activities. A private misogynist is simply not capable of making public decisions in the best interest of women.
If we tolerate misogyny, racism, homophobia or any other form of discrimination in our leaders, we embed discrimination directly into the systems that underpin our society. That’s why we won’t hold out until a meteor wipes out the dinosaurs – they’re always hatching eggs anyway, after all.
This piece was originally published in Maclean’s March 17, 2014 edition for International Women’s Day.
Would you invest in a Canadian sector that led with these economic indicators?
• One of the fastest growing business segments in Canada
• New companies launch at double the rate of the national average
• Incorporated businesses doubled in number during the last decade
• More than 821,000 businesses generate $18 billion in annual economic activity
What if you were told that Canadian firms in this sector create new jobs at four times the rate of the national average, collectively providing more jobs than the country’s top 100 companies combined? Would you consider this a burgeoning, national opportunity to invest in?
These stellar statistics belong to women entrepreneurs. And Carleton University’s Centre For Women In Politics and Public Leadership reports that a 20% increase in total revenues among majority female-owned enterprises would contribute an additional $2 billion per annum to the Canadian economy, making women arguably the biggest untapped opportunity for Canada to become an economic powerhouse.
How Canada compares
Considering the above, it is alarming that Canada is lagging behind the global movement to invest in women, to address their challenges and to
accelerate their growth. Plan Canada’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign
spotlights international studies that demonstrate that continued
investment in girls’ health and education not only raises standards
of living for their families and their communities but also strengthens the
economies of their nations.
Many nations are starting to take action. In April 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged traditionally patriarchal corporate Japan to promote more women to executive roles, asking business leaders to set a target of appointing at least one female executive per company. Ireland has moved beyond encouraging women simply to set up businesses to supporting the creation and nurturing of female-led startups that are internationally scalable. Jean O’Sullivan, manager of Female Entrepreneurship at Enterprise Ireland, says that Enterprise Ireland is actively partnering with Google and Astia to raise its current 8% rate of female-led high-potential start-ups to 15% and 20% to match the respective
rates in global innovation hubs like San Francisco and New York.
Strength in numbers
Canada has several factors in its favour which, if appropriately nurtured, will allow it to become an economic powerhouse in the next 10 years. Canada is often ranked by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) within the top five countries for the proportion of female post-secondary graduates. With women accounting for more than half of all graduates, Canada leads the pack ahead of the United States, Britain, Australia, Germany and France. However, less than one-third of these female graduates obtain a university degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). STEM-related sectors are the pivotal frontiers that are widely expected to drive advances in almost all industries over the next 20 years. Yet many studies foresee a serious skills shortage in these areas, including a 2012 IBM study that pegs Canada’s deficiency at an alarming 100,000 technology workers by 2016. For women, then, this shortfall in STEM studies is critical to opportunity and prosperity, having less to do with aptitude and more to do with inclusivity.
Creating programs to attract, retain and consistently promote women in the fields of science and technology will create tangible benefits to the bottom lines of companies in these lucrative sectors. A McKinsey report, Women Matter 2010, states that gender-balanced executive committees have a 56% higher operating profit than companies with male-only committees – a clear win-win result that beckons investment from public and private sectors alike.
Ilse Treurnicht, CEO at Toronto-based MaRS Discovery District, one of the largest urban innovator hubs in North America, makes a concerted effort to keep mentorship services relevant to female entrepreneurs: “Talent fuels innovation. In a global context, both quality and quantity matter. Canada simply cannot afford anything less than full participation of women in
every aspect of our knowledge-based economy to succeed.”
Several initiatives and not-for-profit organizations have sprung up to make that goal a reality. Ladies Learning Code and Hackademy, for instance, are helping to attract a new generation of women to computer sciences and coding. Groups such as Women Powering Technology are helping to broaden the network support needed to retain and promote more women in
these traditionally male-dominated fields. TechGirls Canada is a national organization that advocates for resources, funding and public-private partnerships to advance women’s leadership in the STEM fields.
Immigration and entrepreneurship
Another arrow in Canada’s quiver in its quest to unleash the full potential of female entrepreneurs is its robust immigrant population. Many studies have noted the connection between immigrants and entrepreneurship.
The Conference Board of Canada has found a significant association between immigration and innovation. Vivek Wadhwa, vice-president of academics and innovation at Singularity University, a Silicon Valley study hub, notes that, as of 2005, 52.4% of Silicon Valley companies had a foreign-born chief executive or lead technologist. And the OECD reports that immigrants are more likely to be self-employed, with many involved in high-growth industries.
John Gartner, a practising psychologist who teaches at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, sums up the immigrant propensity for business-building in this way: “Immigrants have unusual ambition, energy, drive and risk tolerance... If you seed an entire continent with them, you’re going to get a nation of entrepreneurs.”
The message is clear. There is ample reason to create conditions that encourage entrepreneurship among immigrants - and with women accounting for 51% of new permanent residents, they should figure prominently in all efforts and programs. Experts agree that the earlier students, particularly girls, are introduced to entrepreneurship as part of their school curricula, the better. “It’s really important for young people to see entrepreneurship as a career choice, just like law or healthcare or teaching,” says Iain Klugman, CEO of Communitech, the organization helping to build Waterloo’s booming technology sector. “We visit classrooms and constantly bring students through our facility, where they see young women and men, starting new companies literally every day.”
Alongside educational programs, it’s crucial to bring the private sector, government and not-for-profits together to create mentoring programs and micro-grants that encourage risktaking intelligence and innovative ideas. These efforts will help to usher in a generation that will create thriving enterprises of tomorrow.
The other side of the equation is to address the issues that impede women in their workplace environments. Factors that have historically served as breaking points in women’s careers – such as outdated or discriminatory hiring policies and career-family pressures – need to be addressed, if they haven’t been already, in ways that create skilled, gender-balanced, diverse workforces. In a 2011 article, Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee of McKinsey & Co. wrote that “many companies have introduced mechanisms such as parental leaves, part-time policies and travel-reducing technologies to help women stay the course... If companies can win their loyalty at [the early] stage of their careers, they will be more likely to stay the course. These women are ours to lose.”
Canadian organizations like Status of Women Canada and the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology work to gain visibility for issues faced by women in the workplace, alongside data-driven reports that make an empirical case for finding long-range solutions. As Toronto-based business advisor and author Don Tapscott says: “The old hierarchical model of leadership is giving way to a new collaborative approach – where creativity, smarts, analytics, merit and consensus drive decision-making rather than the mere ability to command. My personal experience supports the research that women’s leadership in boards, executive teams and throughout management makes for organizations that do better at solving today’s complex, global problems.”
For the future, addressing gender parity opens the door to addressing inclusiveness more broadly, such as employment of at-risk youth, disabled persons and minorities. This can only lead to a more thoughtful, inclusive form of decision- making that encourages diversity, spurs innovation and successfully connects with the emergent needs of society as a whole.