“The most rewarding thing about my job is that I’m continuously learning,” says Jessica Dempsey, an integrated logistics analyst at Lockheed Martin Canada. “With each day, a new challenge arises and I’m able to use the knowledge I gained in school to produce a solution.”
Dempsey, who graduated from the University of Toronto's aerospace engineering program, has joined the very small percentage—less than 30 percent—of women in engineering. Despite the rapid growth of the advanced technology sector, women hold only 30 percent of those jobs while representing approximately 47 percent of the Canadian workforce. The number of women in executive positions in the technology industry is even smaller, and enrollment in technological programs isn’t increasing by much.
The reasons why women are underrepresented in technology are both complex and many.
One is that gender-based challenges—like socialization and bias— still remain in some environments. “When I was in school, I experienced bias from a classmate who thought that he deserved a higher mark than me because I was female,” says Dempsey. “But this was a rare belief amongst my classmates. I’ve never experienced any bias in the workplace. The companies I’ve worked for have strict policies in place to ensure that employees have a safe and comfortable work environment.”
Many companies acknowledge the value of equal representation in the workplace and encourage women to apply. Miriam Verburg, an interactive project manager at Zinc Roe, says that hiring managers have approached her many times. “I’ve been in offices where men will tell me that they want more women around because balance makes them feel more organized.”
Some women don’t consider the technology industry an option, and many come into it through other channels. Verburg, who studied fine art, entered the tech industry after taking an e-art course. “I wanted to learn how to design websites and got a job at a women's new media art centre, where I learned web design, researched different technologies, and set up a Linux Thin-Client Terminal Lab. I then decided I wanted to get into web development.” After building websites for a few years, Verburgswitched to project management.
Jordan Hale, co-partner of design and development business Mission Specialist, had a similar experience. “I discovered fonts in Windows 3.0,” she says. “I studied art but didn't know design was an option. I messed around with layouts a lot—both in print and web. I didn't realize you could go to school for it."
With few role models around, some less experienced women feel isolated and lack confidence.
Associations like Canadian Women in Technology provide many resources for women in the industry, like mentorship opportunities, conferences, social gatherings, and job listings, just to name a few. There are also various youth-targeted initiatives, such as: BringITon, a website dedicated to educating women between 18 and 25 about opportunities in advanced technology; and Gr8 Designs for Gr8 Girls, a series of information and activity sessions on computer science for grade 8 girls.
Working in technology doesn’t always include sitting at a computer and writing code. Jobs can be found in many fields: energy, defense, information/communications, software/devices, clean technology, life sciences, and aerospace; and in many different roles. But, as a constantly evolving industry, people in tech often work more long days than others.
Understandably, work-life balance is often the number one challenge reported by women working in technology. Verburg recommends choosing a field that suits you. “If you work for a gaming company, start-up, or any place where grinding is at a premium, you're not walking out at five and you're not having babies,” she says. “But there are places that offer decent benefits and more balance, like established software companies. Learn to understand the culture. If you want to enjoy it you have to define success for yourself.”
If you can't find a company that suits you, start one! “There are many tools available that make running one's own business easier than ever,” says Hale. “It’s empowering to work in several different roles at once, and not have to do the same thing everyday.”
Most importantly, don't get discouraged. “Don’t try to fit yourself into a career based on other people’s ideals,” says Dempsey. “There are amazing opportunities available to young women, so keep your mind open.”