Technology needs to include more women, experts say

by | Mar 11, 2013 | Biz/Tech


The panel included from left to right: moderator Katherine Roos, Leila Boujnane, Marty Britton, Heather Payne and Pearl Chen.

By Amber Daugherty

Sheryl Sandberg is one of the women creating a storm in the technology world. Sandberg’s book came out today, which details how women can succeed in their careers. But the chief operating officer of Facebook has been blamed for unrealistic views for the average woman, who, unlike Sandberg, is not worth an estimated $1.6 billion.

Women who have risen to the top of the technology industry have been faced with criticism for their success. And it’s not men who are trying to cut them down, but other women.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was heavily criticized late last month, after she announced her employees would no longer be able to work from home. Women took to forums and comment threads to tear Mayer apart.

It’s seemed recently that the women these females should be role models for are choosing to see them instead as enemies.

An event hosted on Monday by MaRS Discovery District aimed to bring awareness to the issue of the lack of women in the technology industry, and to brainstorm ideas to change the stigma around it.

Man vs. Woman

“Contrary to belief, do not think of yourselves as women in technology,” Leila Boujnane said to the crowd gathered for the “Gaining Momentum: Women and Technology” event.

Boujnane is the co-founder and CEO of Idée Inc., which launched the world’s first reverse image search engine.

“You are part of the entire industry. What you have as a gender is something that was there before you selected going into technology,” Boujnane said.

The event invited discussion from some of the best female technology minds in Toronto.

“Women face unique challenges in running their lives and running their businesses,” Ontario’s minister responsible for women’s issues and minister of intergovernmental affairs Laurel Broten said to the group.

Many women at the event were professionals – graphic designers, career coaches, software managers – and also mothers, and nodded in understanding when Broten talked about her own challenges on Monday morning in getting her two children ready and to March Break camp in the pouring rain before arriving at the event.

Perhaps because of the challenges some women face, the current trend is that technology is mainly male-dominated. Names like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey – to name a few – are household ones, and associated with this often misunderstood industry. Some might refer to these men as “techies,” “geeks,” or “nerds:” names which don’t seem to be offensive when directed at men. Especially these men who, in 2012, had a total combined net worth of $81.4 billion.

Society knows technology is a lucrative area – if someone can imagine, develop and sell an app, they may be set moneywise for life. It’s an industry where ideas are celebrated, and thinking outside the box is the only way to think.

CEO of MaRS, Isle Treurnicht, said though the status quo may be that the industry typically sees more men with these ideas, women shouldn’t be held back.

“Change can happen in a short period of time; we don’t actually have to wait it out.”

Right Brain vs. Left Brain

One of the main themes during the event was the lack of knowledge some women and girls especially have about the industry in general, because of a lack of teaching and role models.

Heather Payne, founder of Ladies Learning Code – a not-for-profit startup that teaches women and girls how to code in workshops – took particular issue with this point.

Payne said when she was younger, she was always told she had an ‘arts brain’ so if there was something else she wasn’t particularly good at, she was told that was okay because she was creative.

“I think it’s actually something we need to stop saying to young people, girls and boys both. I don’t think anyone should say to a girl, ‘It’s okay that you’re not good at math,’” Payne said. “No, it’s not okay that you’re not good at math – open your textbook and learn some math.”

“I think that puts a seed in their mind early on in their lives that it’s okay that they don’t find interest in this thing, and later on that probably is going to stop them from maybe pursuing computer science or something like that,” she said.

“If it’s not part of their identity as a child it may not be part of their identity as an adult.”

Toronto Councillor Mary Fragedakis was at the event, and said she’s really happy things like this are happening now.

“I wish I had had exposure to something like a MaRS when I was in university or even before that if they had those kind of things then,” Fragedakis said.

“It’s about being in the right place at the right time and being exposed to the right things and early enough in a young woman’s life where she’s at that point where she’s going to make career decisions.”

His vs. Hers

The question of whether technology has a gender – or should – was also a hot topic on Monday. Boujnane said it shouldn’t be.

“Technology is technology – it’s just a tool,” she said.

“It’s basically your pen; it’s your pencil. It’s what allows you to build something. If the tool works and it does what it’s supposed to do then it’s neither female or male; it’s a tool.”

Payne told Humber News it’s important people realize how they can use this tool for their own personal gain. She said learning something complicated like coding is difficult for someone who is doing it just because. She recommended learning it for a specific and real purpose – to create a personal website or web presence.

“I think it’s a big step towards empowerment – if you can create something and put it on the web for anyone in the world to see,” Payne said.

“I think something really fun and cool comes out of it that’s sort of confidence-inspiring.”

Payne said she has a passion for teaching women how to be present online and in the world of technology.

“You cannot even go a few minutes most day without having technology having some sort of impact on your life,” she said.

“The more we can get everyone to be an active creator of technology, it’s more likely that the technology we build is going to serve all of our individual needs.  And I want women to be part of that conversation.”