Working Toward Gender Parity in the Montreal Tech Scene


“We’ve done something really great in Montreal” says Marie-Gabrielle Ayoub, Co-Founder of Le Wagon Montreal.

Their class of winter 2020 students has actually surpassed gender parity, now at 60% female students. A year ago, that number was just 35%, which is an average number in tech. Montreal is only the second of 39 cities around the world (Lausanne) to achieve or surpass gender parity. An impressive feat, and certainly no accident.

“We’ve hired more women on our team. More women as teachers as well. We’re working on increasing the amount of female representation at tech events and partnering with like-minded organizations like URelles and CEIM. Also sharing stories of women in tech, sometimes just ordinary people to help encourage more women to make the jump into tech” she added. “These are the values of Le Wagon, and in a city like Montreal where the tech community prioritizes diversity, we are seeing very positive results from this combination.”

Ayoub underscores the importance of diversity in tech by pointing to the numerous studies that show gender parity in a company leads to better performance. The culture is more positive in these companies and parity also helps a business better understand diverse clients.  She also believes that having more women on the team at Le Wagon (a female-led organization) helps make people of all background feel a little more welcome and comfortable, creating the right environment for increased female enrollment.

An impressive achievement no doubt. But what about female enrollment in STEM programs overall? There are programs with thousands of students enrolled for years at a time. For decades there have been calls to take action to increase the number of female students enrolled in science, engineering and math programs. This matters for all the reasons Ayoub mentions, plus when developing things like AI algorithms or quantum computers, it is also important to keep bias out of these advanced programs and consider the long-term social impacts of these technologies, as well as who will control what aspects of them in the years to come.

In an email correspondence, McGill University tells MTLinTech that they’re making progress in these areas and have some numbers to back up that claim. They are particularly proud of the fact that their percentage of female undergraduates in the Faculty of Sciences is close to 57% and has been growing over the last ten years. The university has also seen a steady increase in the percentage of female computer science students, from 12% in 2010 to 33% in 2019. While in Engineering, the percentage of female students has been increasing and currently sits at 32%. Which doesn’t sound great until you consider that the national average is just 22%.

 

The statement went on to say “McGill University is actively taking measures to encourage more female enrollment in these programs. In the Faculty or Engineering, for example, there are many initiatives underway through the Engineering Inclusivity, Diversity and Equity Advancement (E-IDEA) program.”

These initiatives are primarily focussed on (but not limited to):

  • Recruitment and retention of women professors and supporting their advancement
  • Undergraduate and graduate student recruitment and field activities and the work of student groups like Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering
  • Equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) activities to support and retain a diverse student body and active engagement in promoting EDI through the EDI Awards. These initiatives are also embedded throughout the functions of the Faculty.
  • Involvement in the 30by30 initiative of Engineers Canada
  • Training and designation through McGill’s Equity Ambassador Program

So it seems like women may be making up a bigger and bigger slice of the ever-expanding student enrollment numbers. But what happens after that?  How many women are currently working in tech roles?

MTLinTechnology contacted numerous big tech companies to enquire about statistics on women in their ranks working in tech roles. Only 1 responded.

IBM is a four-time Catalyst Award winner, recognized for its innovative, global approach for developing and advancing women in business. (No other company has won this award four times, and only 2 other tech companies have ever won it)

Katherine Faichnie, IBM Canada’s HR Leader, tells MTLinTech that diversity and the advancement of women has been in their company’s DNA since it was founded. This explains why they have been recognized time and again for their efforts in this area. 25% of their IBM’s executive positions are currently filled by women, however the company does not disclose employee numbers of any of its operational units or locations. She explains they have 2 programs to promote gender parity in tech. Both have got the company to a place where its early career professional hiring is “almost 50 / 50” in terms of gender.

“The first one is STEM for girls. The focus is on girls in grades 6, 7 & 8, providing programs that engage them in technology, providing them access to technology and also to role models working in technology” says Faichnie, adding that no less than 34,000 girls have taken part in this program since 2016.

“The second program which we’ve won an award for was our re-entry program. This is focussed on bringing talented women professionals who took a break from the workforce, back into the workforce to restart their careers. It’s a 6-month ‘returnship’. They come into the company and start to hone their skills. And at the end of the 6-months, there’s an opportunity to convert to full time employment.”

Faichnie says every year IBM increases its overall percentage of women working within the company but there is still a lot of work ahead. She points to an incredibly competitive job market in Canada, which makes it more challenging to attract and retain candidates of either gender, even at a company like IBM.

Of course this gives us just a snapshot of the progress being made at some companies and learning institutions. But there is progress. Many companies now have progressive policies to encourage more women to study and work in STEM. This will become even more vital to the country’s economy as more and more jobs are in science and technology related fields. It seems for now at least that Canada, and Montreal in particular are on the path toward gender parity. The question that remains unanswered is when will we achieve it?

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