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The Binary Women – By Ashly July

Sarah Stockdale, Leslie Church, Karen Swartz

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.

The sold out Power Hour Social featured speeches from some prominent female voices in Canadian technology including senior manager of Communications & Public Affairs at Google Canada, Leslie Church and CEO and founder of CampTech Avery Swartz. The night’s first speaker was Sarah Stockdale, Growth manager at Tilt, a micro-crowdfunding website who says she never dreamed she would have the career she does now. In fact, Stockdale says that this field was rarely presented to her as an option growing up.
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Sarah Stockdale, Leslie Church, Karen Swartz during a Q&A at the Power Hour Social
“In school I was taught that the cool thing for a girl to do is go ‘oh my god, computers no like, I would never be able to do that, I don’t even know how they work.’ And that was taught to me as how you’re supposed to act, and this is what’s cool, and fun and normal for a girl who’s interacting with technology, and that’s obviously BS, but the way in which we’re taught about technology fosters that.”

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.

"Not fun. You don’t feel like you belong. I go in my classroom, first day of school in university, I go in and it’s 130 guys and four girls." - Foteini Agrafioti

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.

This underlying systemic bias can manifest itself in many ways as described by Emily Nguyen, organizer and MC of the Power Hour Social. Nguyen, a digital marketing specialist who is also the operations lead at GITdot says, “there’s been a lot of times, where men have gotten promotions faster than me, given opportunities faster than me, and, I would just internalize it as a reflection of me.”
This underlying systemic bias can manifest itself in many ways as described by Emily Nguyen, organizer and MC of the Power Hour Social. Nguyen, a digital marketing specialist who is also the operations lead at GITdot says, “there’s been a lot of times, where men have gotten promotions faster than me, given opportunities faster than me, and, I would just internalize it as a reflection of me.” It’s easy to see how these types of experiences can undermine any person’s confidence and foster self-doubt in their abilities, especially during their formative years, as well as discourage them from voicing their opinions without fear of being seen as disagreeable. “I would always address things outside of meetings. If someone had an idea and they felt strongly about it, it was very hard for me to say, ‘I don’t think that’s the right opinion’, because I would think I don’t know better.” Through experience Nguyen says she has gained that confidence, and is now more comfortable being assertive and voicing her opinion.
University of Toronto professor Natalie Enright Jerger, who teaches Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), agrees that the idea that math, science and tech are “for boys only” is reinforced at a very early age in both males and females. It is something that needs to be addressed if lasting change is to be made. Jerger also explains that finding role models was hard as a student pursuing her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, “being one of a few women, it can be intimidating when you’re in classes with all men and you don’t find other women to be friends with or to form study groups with, can also be intimidating. To not have peers, as well as not necessarily have female role-models as professors or managers.”
This observation is reflected in a 2011 StatsCan study titled Gender differences in STEM and computer science programs at university. According to the study, female students make up the majority of university graduates, but only account for 23 per cent of graduates in engineering and 30 per cent of graduates in mathematics and computer science programs. The study also revealed that men with STEM degrees had lower unemployment rates, higher income and a lower instance of job mismatch than their female counterparts. Jerger says some people may be discouraged by a negative perception of the tech working environment. “When I was doing my education, which was in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, there was a prevailing stereotype that engineering was filled with, nerdy anti-social types of people, and that it wasn’t necessarily a fun kind of environment.”
Although women like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Yahoo President and CEO Marissa Mayer and IndieGOGO co-founder Danae Ringelmann have attained powerful positions in the industry, they remain the exception. Some would point to their success as an indicator that the status of women in the tech field is better than ever, but that is not entirely true. Although strides have been made in some aspects, there are still many issues that can be troubling. In fact, according to a 2010 NPR.org study, the number of women pursuing degrees in computer science has actually been on a steady decline since peaking in the mid-eighties. This is something that Jerger says is reflected in the makeup of the classes she teaches. “I teach one class to second year students in Early Childhood Education, and this is required, for students to graduate so I get a chance to see all the students we have, and I would say in that class it’s probably 15 per cent women, maybe up to 20, says Jerger.
Interestingly enough Julie Haché CTO & Head of Instruction at Bitmaker Labs, a Toronto-based school that teaches web development and design, says she sees a slightly higher percentage of women in the classes she teaches at Bitmaker. “We have about 40 students in each class and I would say maybe eight or nine of them are usually women. Right now we have our best ratio ever, I think one third of the classroom is women.”
Women’s battle for equal rights in tech is one that is fought on a number of fronts. From under representation of powerful women in the media to systemic bias that steer girls away from science and math at a very young age. Many of the women who secure jobs in the field have stories of being told that they should pursue interests more “fitting” of a girl. “To some degree I can only speak to my own experience when I was young, not knowing exactly what kind of messaging girls are getting today. But when I expressed interest in math and science and interest in computing as a young girl, there were people who discouraged me and told me that it wasn’t suitable for me, or it wasn’t suitable for women in general to pursue engineering and there was definitely this bias towards, well you should do something in the humanities, or in the arts, because that would be better suited to you,” says Jerger.

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.”

“I think that’s where feminism is moving towards, applying race and sexuality and gender norms and all of those things. You have to.” - Emily Nguyen

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.”

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