Inclusion, collaboration, and courage – these were the main themes of 5th Annual International Women's Day Talks, presented on March 4th in Toronto. The speakers included Anna McKenzie, a software engineer at Myplanet, Anita Clarke, engineering storyteller from Shopify, Amanda Munday, founder and CEO of TheWorkaround, Komal Singh, an engineering program manager at Google, Maayan Ziv, founder of AccessNow, Pansy Lee, director of Product and Design at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Sarah Stockdale, founder and CEO of Valkerie, and Zoe Daniels, a coding teacher at HackerYou. The event aimed at more than just rehash of the same tired statistics – girls lose confidence in their STEM abilities by the age of 6, reviewers are more likely to criticize code if they know a woman has written it – but also to provide upbeat and concrete advice on how to improve the lives of women currently working in technology and to encourage more women to participate in this expanding industry.
Komal Singh was one of the few presenters to discuss how tech innovation can be used to encourage greater female participation in the technology world. Seeking to replicate the Scully effect, which found that 75 percent of girls who were determined to enter the STEM field had identified Scully from the X-Files TV program as a role model, she published Ara The Star Engineer. This book was aimed at pre-kindergarten girls (a group she identified as underrepresented in efforts to encourage women to engage with STEM) as it is crucial to address the needs of this age group who begin to lose confidence in STEM abilities at early years. The book portrays diversity by featuring a young girl, a non-white protagonist (joining only five percent of the picture book market) and is the first picture book to include a virtual reality component, developed with the help of collaborators from Google. In the book, Ara learns from real women who work or have worked in the STEM fields, and discovers an “Algorithm for Success” which asks her to develop “Courage, Creativity, Code and Collaboration.” The book has been a number one book seller and Singh has received reports of children all over the world accepting Ara as a role model, adored for her adventurous nature, determination to overcome failure, and willingness to take risks, attributes which are valuable in STEM and which often are socialized out of girls.
Pansy Lee spoke directly to the issues of inclusion, collaboration, and courage, emphasizing how women need female allies, but also men who must play a key role. Lee noted that though many gender equality movements exclude men as ‘part of the problem’, men have to be collaborators on the gender equality project, as they are on average more numerous and more powerful in the technology field than their female colleagues. She discussed her graduate research, which showed that men face five common barriers to helping women thrive in the work place: some are completely unaware of the issues women face and their own privilege; some are aware of the issues but don’t know where to start, how to get others to care, or how to create inclusive environment; some fear being the lone advocate and backlash from other men; others fear being misunderstood, coming off as “creepy” or as a would-be hero; and in general, men find it challenging to evaluate people of different genders equally.
Lee offered several concrete solutions to address these challenges. To avoid “creepiness” and encourage positive mentorship relationships, men can meet women in public spaces and speak openly about their significant others. To ensure they are more equitable in hiring, they can expand the networks where job postings are circulated to limit the influence of privilege, and utilize a rubric in interviews so that everyone is evaluated on the same criteria. To prevent women self-selecting out of the process, they can use tools like Texteo.com, which identifies words that may discourage women, to create postings that are inclusive. But ultimately, she notes that men must have the courage to face their own and their peers’ biases. She found that women can help encourage men to face these challenges, becoming allies by sharing their stories and acting as leaders and mentors to men. As she said “ultimately, you cannot achieve gender equality unless everyone agrees that it is important.”
The event moved beyond generalized issues for women within the tech industry, by inviting Anna Mackenzie and Amanda Munday to discuss challenges for parents (particularly mothers) working in tech, and Maayan Ziv to discuss the opportunities for inclusion of women with disabilities in technology. As Mackenzie and Munday pointed out, women in technology face numerous barriers related to motherhood, ranging from inconveniently timed meetings that do not work with children’s schedules, to pumping needs, to a broader hiring stigma arising from being in the “danger years” – years when they might take maternity leave. They provided numerous examples of discrimination in the workforce that have derailed female STEM
workers’ careers, but also emphasized how simple and low-cost changes made by companies could provide opportunities for mothers to balance their work and their life requirements, or even benefit non-parents who also appreciate changes like avoiding dinner time socials. Similarly, Maayan Ziv discussed the many opportunities for all workers and technology consumers that can arise from supporting women with disabilities. She discussed several inventions like the electric toothbrush and text messages which were designed to make technology accessible to those with disabilities, but that also seamlessly addressed needs in a broader social environment to benefit all people. She reiterated that including the perspectives and needs of a broader community can create business opportunities, make workers of all genders, needs, and life experiences happier and more productive, creating a just and enjoyable world for all.
The speakers offered many takeaways for audience members of all genders. The most helpful are paraphrased below.
To challenge women’s traditional socialization, Singh advised:
- Optimize for persistence over perfection.
- Optimize for learning over success.
- Optimize for empathy over logic.
To overcome barriers to male support of women in technology, Lee suggests:
- Be more aware of cutting off women when they speak, and let them continue if this occurs.
- Look beyond usual hiring pools. Privilege excludes talent from networks.
- Have meetings in public and visible spaces.
- Talk about significant others to avoid confusion around relationships.
- Create inclusive job postings by removing words like ‘guru’ and ‘ninja’, which may discourage women from applying.
- Hide identity in job searches, for example, with Chrome extensions that hide names and faces on LinkedIn to avoid bias.
- Interview candidates with diverse colleagues, and use a rubric.
To create a more parent-inclusive environment, Mackenzie and Munday recommend:
- Avoid scheduling staff socials that run from 7-9 pm (children’s bed times).
- Have a lactation room.
- Do not hold meetings at 4:30 when children need school pick ups.
- Offer part time work to those returning from maternity leave.
- Offer breaks in long meetings to allow people to pump.
- Offer parents days off on their children’s birthdays.