Women in Canadian venture capital: Where are they?

October 10, 2013

It seems as though everyone these days is gunning for change when it comes to “women entrepreneurs” or “women in tech.” Certainly, the data around female participation in startups and/or technology suggests change is needed: women comprise just 24% of the Canadian tech sector workforce.

In January of last year, an eye-opening blog post by Whitney Hess looked at the “other side of the table,”—that is, where the money is coming from. Her blog post explored the gender gap within United States–based venture capital firms, using data scraped from the websites of firms that had a focus on early-stage funding, had funded at least five brand-name startups and had funds of at least $100 million.

The MaRS Data Catalyst team loved the simplicity of her methodology and so we decided to see if we could replicate this research to help answer two key questions.

  1. How many women are in investment decision-making roles in Canadian venture capital firms?
  2. Do Canadian venture capital firms with women in investment roles invest more frequently in women-led or women-founded startups?

To address the first question, we used the Thomson ONE venture capital database to generate a list of Canadian venture capital firms that had made one or more seed- and/or early-stage investments since January 1, 2010. (Thanks to our resident data ninja Joseph Lalonde!) We then generated a list of individuals employed by these firms using the same database.

This employee list was verified and updated by looking at each firm’s website. Employee gender was also verified at this stage. We also categorized the individuals in our dataset in two ways: in terms of their seniority in level of decision-making within the firm and in terms of their function (for example, investment, marketing, finance etc.).

This gave us an initial list of 79 firms and 661 executives (all data is accurate as of August 7, 2013). The list of firms was then re-verified with expert input from Michelle McBane, investment director at the Investment Accelerator Fund (IAF).

After fine-tuning the dataset and excluding executives who were not in actual investment positions, the final analysis was conducted on a list of 54 firms and 329 executives. (As far as possible, we focused on roles with the term “investment” in their title, as well as analysts, associates and some senior management executives. We excluded roles explicitly associated with functions such as accounting, operations and human resources, with minimal judgment calls made on ambiguous titles.)

What we found—sadly—was that of the 329 executives in our final dataset, 51 (just 15.5%) were women, only slightly higher than the 14.6% of women found in Hess’ sample. This was higher than in the US where only 11% of women have investment roles according to a 2011 Venture Census survey conducted by the National Venture Capital Association and Dow Jones VentureSource.

Gender distribution within investment roles

Figure 1: Gender distribution within investment roles

Twelve (or 40%) of the venture capital firms in Hess’ sample, and a more disappointing 34 (or 63%) of them in ours, had no women on their investment teams; this includes associates and analysts. Interestingly, there were no firms with exclusively female executives in investment positions (not including the individual angel investors in Hess’ list) and there were also no firms with an equal number of male and female executives in these positions.

Gender distribution within firms

Figure 2: Gender distribution within firms

Of the 20 firms that did have female executives on their investment team, we’d like to highlight those that had the highest representation of women on their investment teams: Business Development Bank of Canada (two out of four or 50% female executives) and MaRS IAF (four out of nine or 45%). Meanwhile, 50% of this subset of 20 firms had only one female executive in an investment role.

Digging deeper into our original dataset, we examined the roles of the executives in investment positions and found that there is a large disparity in the number of women in top- and mid-level roles as compared to men in those same roles, which can clearly be seen here.

Roles held by women in venture capital firms

Figure 3: Roles held by men and women in Canadian venture capital firms

While there are still fewer female than male associates and analysts, there isn’t as large of a disparity as there is in some of the senior roles. This suggests that, in the future, we may see more women move up the ladder to senior investment positions.

This first stage of our research tells us that the Canadian seed- and early-stage venture capital landscape is far from gender neutral. Since most of this research was done quite literally on face value—that is, by looking at the executives featured on the team page of company websites—we can’t offer any insights as to why this disparity exists.

In a follow-up blog post we hope to interview a number of women who are active in venture capital investment roles to get their take on the reasons for this imbalance. And we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Data Catalyst also plans to tackle the second research question highlighted earlier. Understanding what correlation, if any, exists between the gender composition of a venture capital firm’s investment team and the gender composition of the startups in which it invests should be of interest to all participants—male and female—in Canada’s startup ecosystem.

I’d like to thank the following people for their contributions and feedback to this research.

  • Michelle McBane, investment director, IAF
  • Joseph Lalonde, data analyst, MaRS Data Catalyst
  • Helen Kula, product manager, MaRS Data Catalyst
  • Sameer Vasta, manager, public policy and communications, MaRS Data Catalyst

All infographics were created using infogr.am, an online data visualization tool.

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  • MonaD

    Interesting thoughts on gender distribution and roles in the investment arena. One general, unpleasant truth, you could consider in your further studies (outside of merit alone) on gender bias, as it pertains to your second question is the well known, well-experienced, but little spoken of ‘Queen Bee’ phenomena in the workplace- and the betrayals that come with it.


  • T-Bone

    Wow! I knew that women were a minority in tech in general, but these numbers are crazy. Great analysis – looking forward to the follow up …

  • ibv raghavan

    This survey surely unravels the progress made by women into tech startups and will be a booster for some women who are already contemplating and sitting on the fence . A good encouraging news indeed. IBV Raghavan

Malavika Kumaran

Malavika is an intern at MaRS Data Catalyst, supporting their work surrounding the innovation economy. She is currently completing a degree in economics, statistics and psychology at the University of Toronto.

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