May 2, 2012
Thirteen years ago, I worked for a small, but immensely successful ISP (Internet service provider). It was my first sales role in information and communications technology and it put me in touch with many customers who were entrepreneurs and startups, back in the day when they were still referred to simply as “small business owners.”
One of my customers—whose company was supporting a number of private schools in the Greater Toronto Area—reached out to me as he was also teaching introductory computer science to a class of girls in Grade 12 and was having a hard time motivating them. They showed little interest in technology overall, assumed that any woman who was involved in technology was a “geek” and pretty much thought that technology offered a totally undesirable career path to them.
So we collaborated and hosted a meet and greet at our offices, introducing these girls to a number of women who worked in varying roles within our company, from sales and marketing to programming and engineering. These women weren’t anything like what the girls had expected. They were “funky” and “cool,” and collectively we dispelled the image of what a woman’s career in technology could be.
The feedback was great, and all the girls walked out chattering and excited. In fact, one enterprising young woman ended up taking a summer job with us in our engineering department, supporting our data servers. One girl, out of 30.
Thirteen years later, how much has really changed when it comes to encouraging young women to consider careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)? And how much has changed for women in general in terms of business and leadership opportunities? It’s a well-documented fact that women are still woefully under-represented in the startup ecosystem.
At MaRS, we believe that everyone should have a chance to pursue their passions and that’s why we’re here: to enable, support and mentor entrepreneurs of all stripes, wherever we can.
Where do we stand today? First the bad news: We know that outright sexism is, unfortunately, still alive and well in the startup community. The rise of the “brogramming” moniker seems destined to maintain the status quo on the declining number of women embracing programming and coding as a career path, and “gaslighting” is still used as a means of undermining women’s pursuits and achievements.
On the good news side, we know that companies that have strong representation of women on boards outperform those that don’t. We also know that there are a growing number of entrepreneurs who value the voice and perspective that women bring to their businesses and that women-led startups have fewer failures.
In this series of blogs, I’ll be talking with CEOs, programmers and entrepreneurs of all stripes, examining what it’s been like for them as women in these male-dominated fields, how they struggled, failed and succeeded. I’m going to look at experiences, mentors, funding opportunities and the role of women’s support groups within the technology sectors. I feel that sharing these real-life stories and experiences of women will help educate, empower and support more women in their pursuits and help them be a part of an ecosystem that reflects the best of our city, province and country.
I encourage you to be a part of this discussion and look forward to reading your comments and feedback. For those of you on Twitter, MaRS has started to curate a list of local and international women in technology. If you’ve got any suggestions, please let us know at @marsdd.
After all, when we all win, we all win.