Is peer pressure the answer to addressing the gender gap in tech?

We might think the gender barriers are disappearing in the enterprise workspace, but not much seems to have changed. That was the general consensus at a recent Women in Analytics Network and Leadership Symposium hosted by Information Builders in Toronto.

The day’s event began with an overview of these statistics later sourced to a CanWIT page:

  • Canadian women represent almost half of the overall Canadian workforce, yet they make up only 25 percent of the Canadian advanced technology workforce[1]
  • 52 percent of highly qualified females working in science, engineering and technology companies will quit their jobs within the first 10 years of their career
  • 38 percent of women hold leadership roles in Canada, yet only 16 percent hold leadership roles in the corporate sector (compared with 59 percent in the education sector and 37 percent in government agencies)
  • 37 percent of boards of directors and 17 percent of senior management teams have no female representation in the corporate sector to guide Canada’s future generation of women in technology

The frustration of the situation is perhaps best exemplified by symposium attendee Laura Perna, who has had a lifelong career in technology. Now a senior manager, Organizational BI, Finance at MTS Allstream, Perna says she was definitely in the minority when she graduated with a computer science degree in 1988.

Yet while attending her daughter’s graduation from the same program, she was disheartened to see the ratios of women to men hadn’t changed. “Statistically speaking, her graduating class looked exactly like mine. I really thought we were past this.”

Melissa Treier, VP, product sales and strategy, North America, Information Builders
Melissa Treier, VP, product sales and strategy, North America, Information Builders

Melissa Treier, North American VP, product sales and strategy for Information Builders, began the session by highlighting a long legacy of famous women in technology, including Ada Lovelace (considered to be the first computer programmer in the 1800s); Edith Clark (performed calculations for the first human computer at AT&T in 1912); and Grace Hopper, (invented the first compiler for a computer programming language and popularized the term debugging). Added to the list for modern times were high profile women holding senior technology roles, including Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, HP CEO Meg Whitman, and Safra Katz, Oracle Co-CEO.

These noteworthy figureheads however do not mean the shortage of women in technology has been addressed. “We still have a long way to go,” Treier admitted to the audience.

The reasons for the gap have been noted many times over: women under-rate themselves in terms of leadership skills, stereotyping stands in the way of progress and in some cases, lack of internal support for career advancement has an impact. Even where support for women is abundant – Cisco for example this year announced an executive team that was 50 percent women – general staffing percentages for women continue to hover in the 25 to 30 percent range for the company as a whole.

In researching for the event, Treier said she found that women actually seem to be less interested in tech and IT-specific roles than before. That being said, there some good things happening. “There are company cultures that offer a very equal playing field for women from the start.”

Where companies support women from the ground floor, gender doesn’t become a barrier, she said. “A level of objectivity can be wonderful. When I joined Information Builders in my 20s, ignorance was bliss for me. Gender was never an issue because I felt enormous amounts of support and encouragement, and there was a lot of mentorship from women inside and outside the organization. When I see women promoted into some of these jobs today, it’s because they had the internal support.”

Perna’s entry into the tech world was equally gender neutral. “When I was at IBM, 50 percent of class in training that I was attending were women. It never dawned on me this was special. “That was a good thing from a career standpoint. I was able to experience that in times when most companies weren’t [encouraging a gender neutral environment], mostly because of the leader I had. The reality is, it’s no longer about gender. Whatever enablers we need for women, we need for men as well.”

STEM females with attribution
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At the symposium, Cindy Gordon, spokesperson for CanWIT (women in tech) and CEO at SalesChoice, stressed the fact that a large percentage of women in tech drop out after 10 years. She argued that women are leaving technology careers in higher ratios because cultural and leadership styles are not changing fast enough. “Women prefer to collaborate and find win-win pathways. Women in tech want to be listened to authentically and be heard. The issues are more genetic and hardwiring, than deliberate behaviours. We need to learn and appreciate each other’s linguistic patterns as we do sense and process differently.”

Investment opportunities are also heavily skewed in favour of men, she added. For example, less than one percent of venture capital goes to women in tech, and most tech savvy companies don’t have female CEOs or co-founders, Gordon said. “Why is this? The research says women need and want more mentors. The research says often women don’t have corporate finance backgrounds. The research says often women don’t have sufficient general management expertise. This is a major issue to advancement of women in tech. At the same time, we have more [female] C leaders leading IBM, HP, Yahoo, and Facebook in tech than we have never had before so there is some positive change.”

CATA has worked to advance and connect more women in tech, developing mentorship programs, among other initiatives. In partnership with the Lazaridis Institute for the Management of Technology Enterprises at Laurier University and Tangerine Bank, a recent crowdfunding campaign successfully raised over $17,000 to support production of a series of mentoring videos through a new CanWIT Video Sharing Channel for Mentorship.

Other presenters of the symposium included Alysia Carter, CFO of Toronto-based construction firm Ainsworth, who inspired a rousing discussion about effective leadership techniques and the role of IT, adding the perspective of a woman working in a male dominated industry.

Jacinth Tracey of Wired2Succeed followed with a more lighthearted look at the psychology of men and women in leadership roles; the core leadership qualities that are key to future success; and the value they place on data in strategic decision making. In discussing female empowerment, she noted that women need to take personal responsibility for their professional growth and development, and recognize and leverage their own unique strengths. The final advice on that checklist list was that women need to share their power with others.

For women that do make the leap into tech, opportunities abound, Treier said. “With the rise in IoT, Big Data and issues around data monetization, I’ve never known a time where there is more buzz around this industry. The opportunities for anyone are tremendous.”

Overall, the outcome of the day’s discussion was that the responsibility for driving change lies equally with women and men. As Perna said. “It became clear in listening to people we have to lead by mentoring young women. We’re simply not catching girls at a young enough age and following through with consistent and frequent messaging. Peers will have the biggest influence.”


[1] In CanWIT documents provided as research sources for this data, the actual representation of women in ICT was 28 percent, as opposed to 25 percent, based on studies conducted in 2006 and 2009.

See: Research Analysis. Women in Information Technology. d’Fames Consulting. June 2009, and

Gender Challenges of Women in the Canadian Advanced Technology Sector. Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa. 2006.

A CanWIT third reference source cited a Statistics Canada Labour Force survey for 2004, which placed women’s participation in IT at 23 percent.

Breaking Down Barriers to Women in ICT. Canadian Career Development Foundation Report. 2005.

A more interesting trend may be observed by comparing the representation of women in ICT from these studies with a third document, provided as research source which argued that women accounted for 40.5 percent of ICT workers in 2006.

Attracting, Retaining and Promoting Women. Best Practices in the Canadian Tech Sector. CATAWIT forum. November, 2009.






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