On Wednesday, May 23, BDC, BDO and MontrealNewTech hosted an event at Salon 1861 called “Women In Tech: Finding Opportunity on the Challenging Path to Success.” The event featured panelists Amanda Levin (COO, Local Logic Inc.), Joelle Chartrand (COO & Co-founder, RenoRun Inc.), Roula Zaarour (COO, RealVentures), Dr. Sarah Jenna (CEO & Co-founder, My Intelligent Machines), and Stephanie El-Chakieh (CEO & Founder, Volyse and Volexicon), who each spoke about their unique backgrounds and experiences in the field of entrepreneurship and, to some extent, in tech, moderated by emcee Ilias Benjelloun (Creative Director, MontrealNewTech).
Common themes in the panelists’ remarks included: the importance of mentorship, how to balance work and family life, girls needing more self-confidence, being able to filter the advice you receive, taking risks, and having a network of like-minded individuals to fall back on.
The event was similar to many other startup events, save for the fact that the audience was about 90% female, with a large cohort from McGill’s AI for Social Good in attendance.
The discrepancy in gender representation, both at the event and in the field, was reflected upon in a variety of ways, with Levin suggesting that while there is great value in “educating [the men] around us, [there must also be a space for] self-education on the things we should accept and those we should not.” Benjelloun remarked that the effort is two-fold: there must be safe-spaces for women to discuss these kinds of topics, while also requiring increased efforts at diversity and inclusion by men, and shifting the male mentality from “where is the problem” to “there is a problem, so how can I be an ally?”
Zaarour and Levin each commented on the particular experience lived by women in the field of venture capital. Levin presumably drew on some of her own experiences when she said, “it can be really garbage to interact with people in positions of power making decisions over your company […] when they’re not always people who respect you as a person or in the way they’d respect a man.” Zaarour, speaking about her work at RealVentures, noted that when she joined the VC a year ago she was surprised to find that only 15 of the 200 ventures that they back were run by women, and that as COO she is working to introduce a variety of measures to address what she saw as a gender gap greater than that which exists in the corporate world (some of these measures include implicit bias awareness training for the VC’s partners and emphasizing early-stage hiring of female execs as part of the mentorship they provide to their investees).
Dr. Jenna frequently suggested that we need to raise our daughters to be more confident and unafraid to fail. While there may be some truth to this, fundamentally we need to be more cognizant of our implicit biases, and recognize, as Chartrand suggested, that you can “be feminine and in power and in control.” Dr. Jenna also pointed out that women have a tendency to over-prepare while men have a tendency to do the opposite, and the conclusion to be drawn from this is that women lack confidence. Perhaps, however, the issue here is not that women need to be more confident, but that men need to be less sloppy.
On a more serious note however, and regarding the topic of whether or not to include men in this discussion, at this year’s Davos, Joanne Lipman, Editor-in-Chief of USA Today, pointed out that for years these issues have been discussed only amongst women, and that it’s about time men are brought into the conversation and held to account for also having a role to play in bringing about change.
Much of the BDC panel discussion centred around entrepreneurship generally, and though it could be viewed as a broadly positive sign that the topics broached were those typical of startup events, more attention could have been given to the barriers faced by women in tech specifically. A 2015 McKinsey report found that over the past 40 years, the number of women enrolled in STEM fields has actually decreased, despite the advances women have made across the board in a variety of other fields. The report cites that during the 1980s approximately 40 percent of computer science grads in North America were women, but that in 2015, that number had dropped to just 18 percent.
In a world where artificial intelligence is increasingly becoming a part of the living-room lexicon, and where the future impact of artificial intelligence will be shaped by the biases — implicit or not — of those doing the programming, we should take every opportunity to discuss the role of women, and especially women of colour, in tech. Put simply, and as Chartrand noted about being a woman in a male-dominated field, “you are so lucky to have me here because I’m balancing you all out.”