What It’s Really Like to Be a Young Woman in a Tech Hub

While women are making inroads into senior positions, there is still much work to be done

It was her tweeting that got Joanna Woo a job in tech.

The University of Waterloo graduate has always loved technology. In high school, she built her own websites. In university, although she completed an honours psychology program, she took a few STEM courses just because. And after she entered the job market, she still kept a toe in the field, volunteering at and helping to organize tech conferences.

It was at the Human Resources Professional Association annual conference in 2010 where Woo’s social-media presence got her noticed. Twitter, which launched four years prior, was becoming more popular. Nick Bontis, an academic and management consultant who was the keynote speaker at the event said that everyone should be like Woo, who was tweeting at him during the conference. “That’s when BlackBerry stepped in and recruited me,” she says. “I’ve been in tech ever since.”

Now the director of people and culture at Shinydocs, an information-management software company, Woo is one of the few women in senior leadership positions in Kitchener-Waterloo’s rapidly expanding tech-startup scene. There’s nowhere else she would rather be, but for her, and for many women working their way up the startup ladder, it wasn’t easy to get there.

“When people talk about diversity, it’s still mostly just white women in leadership roles”

Waterloo Region is just over an hours’ drive west from Toronto. It comprises three cities: Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge—but many locals refer to it simply as K-W. The tech boom has reshaped the area: BlackBerry Limited, formerly known as Research in Motion, brought an immense amount of talent into the area; Desire2Learn, software that many students will know from their university days, was founded there in 1999 and maintains its headquarters in Kitchener; Silicon Valley companies are being run from downtown Kitchener; and there is a large startup ecosystem that’s powered by the local universities and accelerators like Communitech.

The gentrifying cores of K-W speak to the new talent that’s been drawn to the area. Former factories have been converted into cool new offices or condo buildings, and you’re never far from a great espresso or a hoppy micro-brewed IPA.

But how welcoming are these new companies to women? In 2017, CBC asked 31 Canadian technology companies if they would share their internal diversity data. Only two agreed. A Ryerson report released the same year found that while there was clearly a need to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the field, there was a limited amount of information with which to make data-informed decisions.

Woo has met very few female developers working in K-W’s tech startup world and even fewer racialized women. “We don’t look at the intersections,” she says. “When people talk about diversity, it’s still mostly just white women in leadership roles.”

There’s also the issue of “bro culture.” Imogen Coe, a Ryerson professor who led the report, told the CBC that the industry needs to remove systemic barriers to entry to the profession if it was to combat that perception.

In the early 2000s, when Amanie Ismail got her first job as an engineer after graduating from U of W’s systems design engineering program, she was well liked by her bosses, who encouraged her and promoted her. “That did not sit well with a lot of male engineers I was working with,” she says. “Basically, every day coming into work just felt like I was going into battle. I’d have to justify everything I said, everything I did. It was really just a terrible way to go into work.”

She says this type of mindset is still “100%” an issue and that it limits who works in tech startups. “You don’t see a lot of technical females in tech, right?”

Heather Jeffrey, director of customer success at Nicoya, a biotechnology firm, was young when she started working in tech startups. “I got looked down on for my age,” she says. “Like I wasn’t quite old enough to be there yet, even if I had earned it, even if I had the years or the hours or the attitude. The fact that I was in my 20s at the time had both men and women looking at me like, ‘Does she belong?’”

A new generation of startup founders

Ismail decided to leave her engineering job and co-found her own company, ProductWiki, which was meant to be a Wikipedia for consumer products providing unbiased reviews. “I really thought that was going to be my only entrepreneurial pursuit,” she says. But it wasn’t. Since then, Ismail has co-founded another company , Meya.ai, a customer experience automation platform.

Only 16% of small- and medium-sized businesses in Canada are women-led or -owned, said Mary Ng, the federal minister of small business and export promotion, at an event in Vancouver last year. In K-W, there have been concerted efforts to increase the number of both women who work in STEM and women who become founders. Communitech runs the Fierce Founders program, which helps women grow and scale their businesses.

Ismail completed the Fierce Founders program in 2018. For her, it was an opportunity to connect with other women who share the unique experience of being a female entrepreneur. “We’d go for dinner or whatever, and there’d be all of us sitting around a table and being able to talk about the typical founder stuff but then expanding that to kids, childcare and how you balance your household.”

At U of W, Women in STEM (WiSTEM) advocates for diversity in tech jobs. Janah Alameddine, a third-year biomedical sciences student and co-lead of the group, thinks social media provides all kinds of people with the opportunity to find customers. “Now more than ever I am seeing peers, friends and even family pursuing their dreams and using their interests and hobbies in a way to express themselves,” she says in an email.

“Tech has always been that place that just says ‘Show us your skills and how we can use them’”

When Amina Gilani was making the rounds soliciting business for her new startup, Sociavore, a platform for restaurants to build digital guest experience online, she worried what restaurateurs would think when she brought her young child with her to meetings. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is going to be a disaster,’ just because with my previous role in a corporate sort of setting, you didn’t do that.”

But it turned out they loved meeting her son. “It was so refreshing because so many people were like, ‘Oh, I remember those days. Like, I had started my restaurant and I had a baby.’” So while working in startups does come with challenges, it also brings opportunities. For Gilani, it was getting to spend more time with her family as she grew her business.

Jeffrey worked in the music industry before transitioning to startups. “Tech has always been that place that just says ‘Show us your skills and how we can use them’—which I thought was pretty awesome, especially being of the generation that really wants control of our time,” she says. As a single mother, she finds that tech startups allow her a flexibility she didn’t have in her previous line of work.

For Woo, the speed and flexibility of startup life holds much of its appeal. “Everyone around me is always so willing to learn new things,” she says.

She is working to improve the diversity at her own company. At the beginning of 2019, only 8.3% of Shinydocs employees were women. Now, one of the things Woo pushes for is to think about where biases may stop someone from applying for a job, even removing job requirements from job postings.

After making changes to the company’s recruitment process, 29% of the staff was female by January 2020, and over 40% of new hires were women. “I definitely think it’s just more education around what makes a workplace toxic for women in a technical position,” she says. “A lot of people don’t actually realize that the culture they’ve created is toxic.”