Women In Tech
What’s it like to be a woman in tech? “Where do I start man? Where do you start with this?,”
Foteini Agrafioti says with a sigh, as she rolls her eyes and laughs sarcastically. Her response
speaks volumes. Her words echo the feelings of women pursuing careers in a field that, like
many others, is male dominated.
Agrafioti is the VP of Research and Innovation at Architech, a Toronto software development company that specializes in building applications for mid to large enterprises.
“Not fun. You don’t feel like you belong,” she says, “I go in my classroom, first day of school in university, I go in and it’s 130 guys and four girls,” but tonight, in this room, she is far from being the minority. Tonight she is in a room full of software and web developers, programmers, coders and hackers – all of whom are women. The event is called The Power Hour Social, hosted by Girls in Tech Toronto or “GITdot”, an organization dedicated to connecting and supporting women in Toronto’s burgeoning tech industry.
For a woman working in the tech sector being the minority is a reality. It’s a reality that is at
the very least an uncomfortable situation, and at the very most, according to some, downright
discouraging. It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in tech jobs, and some of those
that are in the field have stories of demeaning behaviour, feeling marginalized and constantly
being underestimated. Conventional wisdom might suggest that men are more inclined to
pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematical) careers, and that is partly
true. But it would seem as though there are roadblocks at every turn that steer women away.
When tackling the issue of the lack of women in the tech field you have to start at the proverbial root of the problem. But what is the root? Many in the field cite a lack of women in powerful positions as well as a lack of accessible role models, saying they are two of the biggest obstacles young women face. “There is a clear underrepresentation of girls in technology. And it’s a problem that’s there. It starts probably at a very early stage in our lives. I think there’s a systemic bias against girls going into technology. We have a very specific image of how technology careers look, and it usually portrays men.” says Agrafioti, who was U of T’s 2012, “Inventor of The Year”, for HeartID, a biometric technology that can authenticate identity by EKG (electrocardiogram) signals from a user’s heart.
These subtle negative interactions, or micro aggressions are a symptom of a subconscious set of beliefs that are pervasive, not only in this industry, but in most male-dominated industries. These micro aggressions range from being “mansplained” basic concepts, to being assumed to be in PR, Human Resources or worse. “When I first started going out to meet-ups (informal networking events) and I was starting out as a developer, everyone would just automatically assume that I was somebody’s girlfriend or a recruiter there’s no way I would be a developer,” says Hache. However she does admit that, “attitudes are definitely changing, there’s no way that would happen at a meet-up in Toronto anymore.”
Diversity, feminism and equality seem to be some of the most popular buzzwords of the last few years.
But to women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community, who are affected by these issues in very real ways, diversity is key. It can be a very daunting task to enter any space, whether it be a classroom or a boardroom, without being very aware of the inherent straight-white-male power dynamic, says Nguyen. Haché agrees saying,“I really really want to kill bro culture.”
Being a woman of colour in the tech industry presents its own set of challenges that mainly go unaddressed, according to Nguyen. “Intersectionality isn’t really talked about in tech yet too much...I’d love to focus it more on intersectionality impact, because I feel like that’s where it’s needed most” Intersectionality refers to the idea that the negative effects of a person’s minority status can be compounded when that person belongs to more than one minority group. For example a female person of colour who may also be homosexual, exists at the intersection of those three minority statuses which can impact their interactions in any work environment. Nguyen also says that she envisions a future where the issues of people living at these “intersections” are addressed, “I think that’s where feminism is moving towards, applying race and sexuality and gender norms and all of those things. You have to.”
The future of the tech industry lies in the hands of those committed to making changes in the
community at a grassroots level. Companies, institutions and individuals that want to show
young girls that they can have a positive and successful careers in STEM.
“I don’t think that they should feel discouraged. I think that they will be a part of making things
better,” says Haché, “There’s a lot of events and groups these days that you can reach out to, to feel more welcome in this community.”
To that end, Google has created initiatives like “Made With Code” to inspire girls that are
passionate about coding as well as create a community to support these young women
throughout their careers. According to madewithcode.com Google has invested over $40 million in support of organizations like Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code since 2010.
Instructors like Haché say she is hopeful about the doors that will be opened for those to come, “the future generation of developers are more and more exposed to women that are very capable and it kind of changes people’s perception.”
Professor Jerger’s advice to the young women who dream to be future engineers, coders and
CEO’s is to never give up, despite what obstacles get in your way. “I’m incredibly stubborn and to have that perseverance, I do think it gets better
. If you persevere and stick with it and are very proactive about finding mentors, about reaching out to someone for help, I think you can be successful, and you can find a place and a culture that works for you.”