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Tech sector still struggles with gender diversity, says key is to involve girls

Students attend the Girls Learning Code computer workshop in Toronto on Wednesday July 16, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

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Students attend the Girls Learning Code computer workshop in Toronto on Wednesday July 16, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO - Tech companies — whether they be established firms with thousands of employees or five-person startups only months in the making — have long been criticized for their lack of female employees, especially in management and engineering roles.

In the last few years, however, the industry has taken note of the gender disparity and it is slowly changing.

"It's a problem. It's a real problem," said Sandra Wear, an entrepreneur and CEO with the national organization, Canadian Women in Technology.

Wear, the founder of two tech startups, said the lack of gender diversity hurts the whole industry, especially one that should rely on diversity for innovation.

"(Women) do not have a seat at the table whether we're solving problems, developing products or defining policies for the markets," she said.

"When you only have half of your population trying to address the needs of your whole population - how do you do that unless you have the voices of those other people in the types of roles that are in the markets that you serve."

Recently, Silicon Valley giant Google Inc. publicly disclosed that less than a third of its global workforce of about 50,000 employees were women. Those statistics were nearly mirrored at Yahoo Inc., which revealed that women made up only 38 per cent of its employees.

Lisa Boulanger, the Canadian head of the Woman@Google group at the tech giant, said improving gender diversity has become a mission for the company that has focused on three areas for improvement: networking, development and recruiting. One of initiatives to come out of the employee-run group is to ensure that there is at least one woman on every job interview panel.

"We've been very transparent with where we are (with gender equality)," said Boulanger, who is also the industry lead for financial services at Google Canada. "I think it shows that it's important to us and we're aware of the current situation."

She said one of the egregious misconceptions about working in the tech sector is that all employees are required to have a strong computer science or math background.

"There's marketing to be done, business, finance; many disciplines that surround putting out software into the world," said Kirsten Sutton, managing director of SAP Labs Canada based in Vancouver.

Sutton, who studied English and creative writing, came into her role at the global software firm after she began writing technical manuals. It was her interest in playing video games, along with her communication and management skills, that has made her an asset.

The key to getting more women into the industry is to get them while they're young, she said.

For the past two years, SAP Labs has paired up with the University of British Columbia to offer a weekend workshop called GIRLsmarts, aimed at getting Grade 7 girls excited about science and technology. In one weekend, these girls learn how to compose a song and redesign the game Candy Crush.

"There isn't an activity that you can do in a day that doesn't somehow link you back to some piece of technology. I think most of these kids know that but you just have to let them feel like they can be a part of developing that, and not just using that," she said.

"We have to get these girls before they decide it's not a good idea and, all the way along, keep them engaged in the process. Slowly but surely, these girls are taking the helm."

Heather Payne, who runs similar workshops in Toronto called Girls Learning Code, aimed at six to 16-year-olds, said it's important to turn women into creators of technology, not just consumers.

"That's where the exciting jobs are. That's where you can still make a lot of money these days," said Payne, who also runs Ladies Learning Code and HackerYou boot camps.

"If you're looking at 10 years down the road, not everyone will work in a pure technology role but technology is becoming more and more of a basic skill that everybody needs to have."

Follow @LindaNguyenTO on Twitter.

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