The Road to Gender Parity in Tech

A funny thing happened at the 3rd edition of FWD50 in Ottawa last month.

This event, put together by the organizers of Startupfest, is focussed on transforming digital government and attracts public servants and decision makers from multiple countries. The revenue model for this event is naturally sponsorship. Companies interested in addressing this kind of an audience pony up some dollars and in exchange they receive access in the form of speaking opportunities. This in turn led to the organizers having less control over who exactly was speaking on the stages in some cases, which Katherine Johnsen, Director of Strategic Partnerships for FWD50 says the team realized needed to be addressed.

“We’ve always had an emphasis on gender parity at our events. When we were working with sponsors who were bringing forth speakers it brought the percentage of women speaking at the event down from over 50% to about 19%.” She tells MTLinTech. “We had do something!”

Embrase, the team behind this event, brainstormed on this challenge and finally settled on a bold course of action to address the issue.

They decided to build into the contract that if sponsors had more than one speaker, at least 50% of them had to identify as female. At first, they weren’t sure how this would be received. Especially since they also added a clause to the agreement saying that for those who adhered to this benchmark, 10% of their sponsorship fee would be donated it to under represented groups in tech. And those who did not would be charged an additional 10% on top of their sponsorship fee, which would then be donated to Canada Learning Code.

“We were thrilled at what happened because our sponsors came through in a big way.” says Johnsen. “We only had one that was unable to adhere to this, and only because they had one specific expert they wanted to include in the workshop but they were more than happy to pay the extra money to support this initiative, which literally changed our ratio from 19% to 50% in one year.”

Microsoft was one of those sponsors. Pauline Martin is Industry Executive – Government, with the software giant. She explains that the changes made around sponsorship at FWD50 played right into the company’s objectives, telling MTLinTech that Microsoft designs its products for everyone with the goal of empowering every person and organization to achieve more.

“If we’re not building something that works for everyone, we’re limiting our market. We’re limiting our ability to achieve that mission.” Adding “We talk about design [of products] that work for an individual on the fringe, on one side or the other of the scale. If we design something for that unique scenario, we’re going to end up with something that works for everyone.”

She says her company knew that the organizers behind FWD50 would ask for a diverse group of participants from sponsors even before she heard about the exact requirements for this year. As a result, Microsoft was able to put forward 5 female participants of the 6 which they sent to this event, including their partners. This being a conference on advancing tech adoption in the public service, there are obvious advantages to doing so.

“We talk to the market about our diversity, our inclusion and why we feel it’s so important. And it serves us well to demonstrate that. When we get up in front of the government of Canada and worldwide governments who are at FWD50, we’re showing that we’re walking the walk. We’re taking seriously what we’re promoting. It’s something that’s very well recognized because the government puts high value on diversity and inclusion as well.”

Martin makes a number of strong points. But one that often flies under the radar is the inclusion element of diversity and inclusion. An element many leading organization see as vital.

“We can’t forget about inclusion. You can be working alongside a team with a diverse mix of people and good gender balance, but if you’re feeling alienated, then the program is not working. So diversity and inclusion have to go together.” says Thomas Park, Vice President, Operations & Strategy at BDC Capital.

He explains that one of the principal challenges for entrepreneurs in our country is attracting talent. Top talent won’t necessarily all look the same or sound the same. So if an entrepreneur wants to be successful, scale their business or eventually exit, they’re going to need to attract talent in an unbiased way.

BDC too is walking the walk. The bank operates a large Women in Tech Fund led by Michelle Scarborough. But more than just investing in women and trying to counteract the imbalance in access to capital, Park tells MTLinTech that they are working to create an environment that is welcoming to all, through a code of conduct with LPs. “When we sign an investment into a fund, in order to finalize that investment, they have to agree to adhere to a code of conduct.  While diversity remains an important priority at BDC Capital, in this way we also encourage other funds to follow our lead.”

Sharon Zohar is Founder and CEO of The Big Push, a business accelerator for women entrepreneurs. She says all actors in the technology space, whether it’s government, industry or investors, all need to be doing more to support women led businesses. “When you’re trying to move an elephant, you need the entire infrastructure on board. So many great ideas have slipped away because of the lack of access to capital. We have issues around financing, education and networking which need to be resolved.”

The organization focuses on women in tech specifically, and Zohar also works with women led businesses in general through her role on a Federal government panel on the subject. While she welcomes initiatives like these, she cautions that there’s still a long way to go before we as a community achieve gender parity in tech. She points to unconscious biases in boardrooms, an important gap in early stage financing in particular, and unequal access to education and networking opportunities that all need to be addressed. This has a compounded negative impact on the economy as well. She added that women led businesses offer higher ROI and consequently, from her perspective, there is actually more value in investing in women.

What’s clear at this stage is that there are still hurdles for women getting into STEM programs at academic institutions, with financing and with networking. While things are improving, the pace of improvement needs to accelerate. This is not only a question of what is just and right, there is a compelling business case as well. Canada is a small market and we as an economy cannot be selective about the people we want our good ideas and innovations to come from. We are at a critical stage in the 4th industrial revolution and the prosperity of our country is on the line. Leaders like FWD50, Microsoft and BDC all recognize this but, it must trickle down to the entire tech community for us all to be able to reap the benefits.

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