The technology industry may be growing up during a more enlightened age when men and women are supposed to be on equal footing in the workplace, but its bro-heavy culture seems to be holding both women and, ultimately, its fortunes back.
Elephant in the Valley, a 2016 survey of 200 women mostly in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, found that 60 per cent reported unwanted sexual advances, one in three have felt “afraid of their personal safety because of work-related circumstances,” and 90 per cent said they had witnessed sexist behavior at offsite company gatherings or industry conferences.
But such poor corporate behaviour goes well beyond harassment: the survey also found 59 per cent of women said they did not get the same opportunities as their male counterparts and 52 per cent cut their maternity leaves short because they thought it would negatively impact their careers.
Julie Traves, acting editor of the National Post recently sat down to discuss the issues facing women in technology with Siri Agrell, managing director of Toronto-based OneEleven Inc., a community of high-performing technology scale-ups, and former director of strategy for Toronto Mayor John Tory; Alicia Close, a data consultant in Vancouver and founder and chief executive of Women in Tech World, a non-profit supporting and advancing women in tech; and Carol Leaman, chief executive of Axonify Inc., a microlearning platform in Waterloo, Ont., and former CEO of PostRank Inc., a social engagement analytics company she sold to Google LLC in 2011.
FP: We’ve all heard about the extreme end of sexism — harassment — in the tech industry. What’s it like for women these days?
Agrell: Sexism and harassment is an issue not just in tech, but across industries. There are no industries that are immune to this — at all. That’s what we’ve learned from, I hate calling it the #Metoo movement, but all the news that has come out in the last few years. It’s affecting enterprise, it’s affecting media, it’s affecting entertainment, it’s affecting tech. The difference is that tech is a young sector, a young industry, and they’re struggling with this. But it is a priority in terms of market access to improve your diversity and it’s a huge risk to every industry to not address issues of safety and inclusion and making sure these things aren’t happening.
FP: Google recently confirmed two executives accused of sexual misconduct were paid US$135 million in severance.
Leaman: With the last couple of years and the #Metoo movement, I would be shocked if there continue to be those issues rampant in the tech world. They were rampant and prevalent, particularly in certain pockets. But so much of that now has had a light shined on it that … someone would be stupid, frankly, just stupid to engage in that behaviour now. I’m sure it’s still happening, but I think the prevalence of it is dramatically less than it would have been two years ago.
FP: Ali, you’ve just done a lot of research on women’s experience with this in Canada.
Close: At Women in Tech World, we did a big research tour across the country and we heard from different stakeholders in each community — between 30 and 100 people at each community conversation. Overall, we heard from 1,600 voices. In the qualitative research, the No. 1 most prevalent barrier that came up was bias and discrimination. The participants described it as being around condescending, sexist or “old school” attitudes towards women in the industry. And Siri, as you were talking about, we don’t see it just in tech. But the tech industry is new and it’s also quite small in Canada, so you’re two degrees of separation from people. With harassment, bias and discrimination, it’s hard to have those discussions when there’s only a few investors in your pool to go to.
FP: There was a recent study suggesting that in North America, between 2011 and 2013, companies with female CEOs accounted for only three per cent of venture-capital funding.
Agrell: The funding piece is challenging for everyone. In the investment community, in general, they’re investing in tech. A lot of female founders in technology tend not to be technical founders. They’re not necessarily coming from an engineering or product development background, and that is an inherent bias in the venture capital landscape. The Canadian government has introduced a Women in Technology Venture Fund. They got 3,000 applicants for 200 investments. A lot of new venture funds are being asked to index more investment towards it. There are steps being made, but it’s absolutely a barrier right now.
FP: Carol, you’ve had amazing success with funding.
Leaman: It definitely is a challenge. But it’s gotten dramatically better over the last five years. I recently was talking to another female entrepreneur and she’s got a whole pile of money to invest, but there aren’t enough women in technology running businesses to invest in. There are a lot of women running businesses that aren’t necessarily tech businesses.
Agrell: Part of the issue is how do we pool and identity the opportunities that are there. It’s the same thing with talent. A lot of our customers will say, “We want to hire women, but there aren’t any.” That is not the case. How are you putting those positions out there, how are you identifying the opportunities? There is a little bit of a disconnect between actually knowing where the money is for the people who need it and how we actually close that loop a little bit better.
Close: That was a huge piece with our tour across the country as well, just the lack of unawareness of resources out there. But I also hear questions like, “What should women be doing to address this?” Women need to be thinking about what’s preventing them from applying for jobs or funding, but organizations also have a responsibility to ask: Why is my venture fund not finding out who these people are? Why is my tech incubator not getting those applicants?
FP: Where does networking happen? For example, I’ve seen tweets of women taking selfies in empty bathrooms at tech conferences — since there are so few women, there’s no lineup in the washroom.
Agrell: When I was working with the mayor on building up a tech ecosystem, he was getting invites to a lot of these things. We put a stake in the ground: He would only attend conferences or be on panels or be on stage where there was a diversity of representation. We’d hear back, “Oh, there are no women available to be on the panel,” and we told them that’s not good enough. Who are you asking? There are women out there and we know there are.
Close: A lot of your network is people who are like you, so it’s important that you’re getting outside the bubble you’re in to make sure you’re not creating the same event over and over again where we are seeing all-male panels. It’s systematic processes across the company that need to be changed, even policies around parental leave and things like that. Having maternity leave so women can take time off, and having the opposite, being supportive of men having leave as well.
Agrell: A lot of companies in our OneEleven community have between five to 50 employees, so it’s hard for them on their own to provide benefits, even though we know that benefits are overwhelmingly important when people are looking for jobs, and particularly to women. We make sure all our companies can provide health-care benefits. You’re absolutely right: men and women can benefit from a parent-friendly workforce. This is what it’s about: not women for the sake of women, but how we’re going to build a sustainable tech ecosystem.
FP: In terms of recruiting, you’ve mentioned the inherent biases in tech and that fewer women are founders. Are we doing a good job of getting women interested in tech and to lead these companies?
Leaman: I spoke yesterday at a class at the University of Waterloo. It was a masters in entrepreneurship course and half the room was female, of all different education and backgrounds. The whole idea is to foster entrepreneurship regardless of background. There are also things happening, at least in this area, in high schools to reduce barriers to having people from lots of walks of life and genders think about entrepreneurship. It’s all changing, but it’s not going to happen overnight, unfortunately. It’s going to be an evolution.
Agrell: The vernacular around tech is a blessing and a curse. It makes it sort of a trendy thing and people know that it’s a thing. It’s also intimidating for people. They think, “Oh, if I’m going to work for a tech company, I need to know how to program.” A lot of people are unaware of the different opportunities that are available. New companies are looking for salespeople, they’re looking for marketing people, they’re looking for smart people across all different skills.
Close: One of the pieces about the pipeline issue is that we don’t focus on entry level and middle management. Once women get into the field, 50 per cent of them leave within the first five years because of the barrier issues they are having within tech. I’m definitely not saying we shouldn’t support women leaders in tech and women-led businesses, but there’s also a gap in support for entry level/middle management where women are leaving, they’re isolated, there are only one or two women on their team, especially in technical roles.
Agrell: We have a lot of companies where there is literally one woman on the team. Most of our peer groups in OneEleven are role based. We have a peer group for CTOs, for COs, for CMOs. But we’ve just introduced a women’s peer group because we’re recognizing they need the support that we can draw from other companies.
FP:I wonder about the issue of confidence. Carol, you’ve talked on a number of occasions about how you learned from a bully boss.
Leaman: When I think about the era when I was going through that, it was 25 years ago. It was a time when I was the only female in any kind of management role in quite a large company, and I was young. Because of the time, I just accepted that that’s the way it was, that you had to put up with getting yelled at and having things thrown at you and being told you were stupid. I would hope that type of culture today would be very different. I certainly don’t see it myself. I don’t have exposure to that, but I’m sure it does still exist.
FP: Siri, you’ve talked before about diversity as an “asshole” screen.
Agrell: If your company becomes too much about one person, if there is a liability or a risk, then your whole company is at risk. We need to move out of this mythology of the founder or the owner, because that tends to celebrate a personality, and, as we have seen, that’s not necessarily sustainable. You’re not necessarily going to appeal to a large swath of the consumer base if you’re only thinking about one type of person. We use our community panels so that when we bring in new companies, we make sure that we have diversity of opinions. It’s a hugely effective asshole screen.
FP: Carol, you’ve used the more polite term ego, that you screen for ego to some extent. Is that fair?
Leaman: Most definitely. It doesn’t cross my mind when interviewing people or thinking about rates of pay to think anything other than is this person the best person for the job? It really comes down to, male or female, do they have an ego larger than life? If they think they’re the shit, for whatever reason, we just don’t hire them. A person yesterday asked, “What is your gender proportion here?” We’re 45 per cent women and of 10 executives, five are women and five are men. That was not by design. I just picked the best person for the job and paid them for that job. The ego thing, male or female, is just a non-starter for me.
Agrell: The most generous interpretation is that everyone thinks they’re hiring the best person for the job, right? I don’t think anyone thinks they’re not doing that. It’s recognizing what lens you’re seeing that through and the lens you’re seeing your applicant pool through. It’s making sure you’re aware of your blind spots and your inherent tendencies to go toward one type of person.
Close: Even at the community conversations, men walked out of the room being like, “I actually didn’t know that this is what women go through every day.”
FP: What are the payoffs? Why does diversity matter?
Agrell: Women are 50 per cent of the population, it’s about market reach, and the demographic breakdown in Canada is extremely diverse. You can’t design for those markets if you don’t understand those markets. It’s completely about your customer and consumer reach and your market reach. The other side of that is risk. Monocultures die. If you only have one type of employee and you’re only selling one type of product, you’re not going to reach your true potential.
Leaman: I agree with that, men and women think differently about so many things. There is a diversity of thought, approach and innovation that you get from each gender, from a different lens and a different angle. How could that not be beneficial to accelerating business? It just is. The more balance you have in an organization, the more you attract. If you want to grow as a company, it’s just easier if you get that balance.
Close: Two things come to my mind around payoff of diversity. We have this talent shortage, so, obviously, for moral reasons, it’s better to have diverse teams and support both genders equally. Also, with 70 per cent of women owning the buying power, they have control of household spending, we’re seeing new and innovative products coming from diverse teams that are thinking about that and they are doing extremely well. It’s been interesting to note that the gaming industry has come out with lead roles for women. Initially, there was backlash, but there are a lot of women gamers and they’re putting their money into that. These changes are happening. Money talks.
Note: This discussion has been edited and condensed.