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Five simple ways to encourage more women into Canada’s tech sector

Tanya van Biesen is executive director of Catalyst Canada, a global non-profit group working to accelerate progress for women through workplace inclusion.

On Nov. 1, #movethedial, PwC Canada and MaRS released a highly comprehensive report on the gender gap in the Canadian technology and innovation sector. Where's the Dial Now? revealed that only 5 per cent of Canadian tech company CEOs are women, and only 8 per cent of their board seats are held by female directors. Perhaps even more shocking is that more than half (53 per cent) of Canadian tech companies have no female executives and 73 per cent have no female board directors.

In Canada, women represent 47 per cent of the work force, earn more than 60 per cent of university degrees and control or influence more than 75 per cent of all purchasing decisions, so I have to ask: These technologies that Canadian tech companies are developing, who are they for?

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One year ago, I left my role as a partner with Spencer Stuart, the executive search firm, to join Catalyst Canada, a non-profit that aims to help women advance in the workplace. This move, from the talent-advisory sector to the world of research and advocacy, was driven by my deep desire to help unlock Canada's most valuable and as yet still undervalued talent pool: women.

It was only in the last seven or eight of my 21 years in executive search that women in leadership became a genuine priority for Canadian companies and I believed the time had finally come for women to share fully in the influential roles that are shaping this country's future. Yet some hesitation came with this new-found gender priority. Many boards and chief executives said: "We'd like to get a woman for this role, but we don't want to compromise on quality." Eight years on, some sectors have overcome this hesitation and reaped the benefits of gender diversity. Unfortunately for the tech sector, gender disparity not only still exists, but remains pronounced. And this is true of both the tech companies and those who invest in their growth and development (only 12 per cent of Canadian venture-capital firm partners are women).

For a sector seeking to change the world in every way imaginable, why are Canadian tech companies perpetuating such an outdated problem? And when talent is their most important asset, why aren't these companies and their investors leap-frogging other Canadian industries to seek the best and the brightest?

The market for talent is as competitive as it has ever been and it is going to get far worse before it gets better. The Canadian tech sector has an opportunity, right now, to drive higher levels of innovation and greater results by redefining its version of leadership and broadening its view of who can thrive and lead in this industry. By including women fully in the sector, these companies will gain access to a wealth of talent and brainpower that will pay dividends – but to do so will require changes in behaviour and approach.

Catalyst research shows that tech companies need to undertake five actions to build workplaces that are more gender inclusive: 1) Create a culture in which women feel they belong and are equals. This includes developing and enforcing, if necessary, a zero-tolerance policy for sexual discrimination and harassment. 2) Pay women and men equally. 3) Engage senior male leaders to sponsor up-and-coming female talent. 4) Make performance evaluation standards crystal clear and ensure that they are applied consistently for men and women. 5) Expand recruiting networks and focus candidate assessment on skills rather than "fit."

These are five practical, common-sense actions that tech companies can take today to build workplaces that will draw the brightest women and men. And the results will follow.

Behaviour change is only truly effective if we are moved to take action, rather than being told to do so. Remember when you were a kid and your mom or dad told you to practise piano? We all hated that. But when you sat down at that piano on your own, the feeling was unparalleled, because it was all you creating the music. Tackling gender inequality is no different. Tech companies need only to recognize the opportunity in front of them and take a seat at the piano. Once there, and with practice, I am more than confident that they will make incredible music with fantastically talented women and men.

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Tackling Silicon Valley's sexist "mirror-tocracy" will take a diverse workforce, says Kara Swisher (The Globe and Mail)
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