Building a Female-Friendly Tech and Innovation Sector in Calgary

Illustration by Tara Paquette

A number of positive trends and factors are steadily removing barriers for tech-minded and entrepreneurial women in Calgary.

BY JULIA WILLIAMS for Avenue Magazine, published on September 29, 2017

Once a handful of scrappy entrepreneurial success stories, Calgary’s technology and innovation sector has quietly become a thriving industry. From an economic perspective, this is great. Few would deny that a diverse economy is a strong economy, and something we should work toward. A diverse workplace, on the other hand — that can be a harder sell.
Like the energy sector, the tech sector is historically male-dominated. It would be reasonable to wonder if Calgary is just a breeding ground for industries that tend to exclude or resist female contribution. But when you dig deeper, you find a more interesting (and far more feel-good) story. Rumour has it, Calgary’s tech and innovation sector is an exceptionally friendly environment for women.

 

Defining “exceptionally friendly”

Last year, Calgary Economic Development CEO Mary Moran travelled to Silicon Valley with Mayor Naheed Nenshi to persuade tech companies to set up satellite offices in our city. The trip was part of CED’s 10-year economic strategy to diversify Calgary’s economy, one key pillar of which is to build the innovation sector. 

At the time, news stories described the trip as an effort to create a “Silicon Valley North” in Calgary. Not only was this an inaccurate summary of CED’s goals, but it coincided with a slew of negative press about Silicon Valley’s misogyny problem, with stories detailing widespread gender-based harassment and discrimination in the California tech hub. (In April, 2016, The Atlantic went so far as to run a feature article with the unequivocal title: “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?”)

Fortunately, none of the Calgary women interviewed for this story described anything comparable to the sexist culture reported in Silicon Valley: no allegations of harassment, discrimination or even rudeness. So, Calgary definitely isn’t bad, which may be enough to make it “exceptionally friendly” for women — but that’s a very low bar to clear. 

What’s more useful is to find out whether or not Calgary is a good place for women to work in the tech and innovation sector.

 

Just the Numbers, Ma’am

When you look at just the numbers, frankly, they don’t look great. Canadian women are entering the tech and innovation sector in lower numbers than men. A Statistics Canada National Household Survey found that women aged 25 to 34 account for only 30 per cent of mathematics and computer-science program graduates. When women do graduate and enter the field, they make less money, on average, than their male counterparts. 

But female leaders in general are the minority in Calgary. A 2016 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which ranked Canadian cities on measures including health, economic security and leadership for women, ranked Calgary third from the bottom. In the “leadership for women” category, which looks at positions including elected officials and senior management, we slipped to second-last; women hold only 29 per cent of those roles in this city. 

But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Anecdotally, a number of positive trends and factors are steadily removing barriers for tech-minded and entrepreneurial women in Calgary — and making the tech and innovation sector a better place for everyone to work. 

 

ILLUSTRATION BY TARA PAQUETTE

 

Putting women in charge

Arleigh Vasconcellos is principal of The Agency, a marketing firm that works primarily with Calgary’s tech and innovation companies. She says about 30 per cent of the companies in her client base are led by women, a number that lines up with the numbers cited in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report. However, context is key here: this percentage is an encouraging accomplishment in the traditionally male-dominated tech sector. “If we were the same company in Silicon Valley, we’d be working almost exclusively with men,” Vasconcellos says. 

Moreover, Vasconcellos sees plenty of room for that ratio to shift as Calgary’s young tech ecosystem (the preferred nomenclature of those working to build the sector) evolves, noting that many of the sector’s foundational organizations — which provide everything from mentorship to venture capital — are run by women. Alberta InnovatesStartup Calgary and Alberta Enterprise are all female-led, as is the A100, an organization in which seasoned tech entrepreneurs support and mentor up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

The A100 executive director Cynthia van Sundert held leadership roles in the performing arts and finance sectors in Montreal before she entered the world of tech start-ups in Calgary. She says Calgary’s innovation sector has a reputation for an open, trusting culture and she believes it’s a place where women can thrive. “If I compare it with my experience, [Calgary] absolutely is very open and very supportive of women in senior leadership roles,” says van Sundert. 

That’s not to say van Sundert hasn’t found areas that need improvement. When she joined the A100 in 2015, women were under-represented on the organization’s membership roster. “I started going, ‘um, there’s three women on this list. What the heck?’” van Sundert says. She and her team quickly identified and removed a membership requirement that was posing an unintentional barrier to women: that A100 members must have exited (read: sold) their companies. According to van Sundert, women are more likely than men to launch start-ups as long-term commitments, whereas men are more likely to start and then sell companies on a shorter time line. Now that this “exit” requirement has been removed, more female founders qualify for membership, and van Sundert has seen a corresponding increase in interested women. 

It’s not just high-level decisions that are affected when women hold leadership positions. For women considering careers in the field, seeing other women in leadership roles can be the difference between staying the course or switching majors. 

Rosemary Sanchez is a career coder who recently took on the role of people lead for web software development at Benevity, a local company whose software makes it easier to donate and volunteer with charities. Sanchez’s first-year computer science professors at the University of Calgary were almost all male, but there was one course taught by internationally renowned computer science expert Katrin Becker (now a professor at Mount Royal University). That course made a lasting impression on Sanchez. “[Becker] made programming less scary and more fun. The fact that she was open and that she was a very visible professor at the university, for first-level students, really solidified the fact that there was a place for women there. And that was good for me,” says Sanchez. 

As a co-founder of the web-based construction management software company Evoco in 1999, Alice Reimer forged a path in Calgary’s innovation sector long before it became an “ecosystem.” She says it’s incredibly important for young entrepreneurs, male and female, to have role models. Only in retrospect, she says, did she realize how lucky she was to have the support system she did. “[My co-founders and I] were able to find those key folks who were willing to invest in us, and, in particular, in me as a young female leader,” Reimer says. 

 

Mentors and proteges

Today, as board chair of the A100 and member of the board of Calgary Economic Development (and the former president of Startup Calgary), Reimer is determined to give back as a mentor for up-and-coming tech entrepreneurs. 

In the past five years, access to mentorship programs and support systems has become easier for women — for everyone, in fact — in the tech sector. Agencies like the A100 and Rainforest Alberta, an organization created to nurture a robust innovation ecosystem in the province, have emerged, alongside grassroots organizations that focus on recruitment and training for women.

Chic Geek is a non-profit that focuses specifically on welcoming and coaching tech-curious women. Back in 2012, founder Kylie Toh felt lonely and uncomfortable as a young women learning to code. Unable to find the support she wanted, she decided to create the organization she believed the sector was missing. She expected 40 people at Chic Geek’s first event and 120 showed up. The grassroots organization now hosts about 25 events and workshops each year and engages in corporate partnerships and sponsorships. 

Toh (a member of Avenue’s Top 40 Under 40 class of 2016) isn’t the only one making strides on the community side of tech and innovation; there are other programs that reach out to school-aged girls, as well. One of these is the Alberta Women’s Science Network’s Operation Minerva, a one-day on-the-job experience for grade eight girls who want to know what it’s like to have a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) career. 

Sanchez is involved with both Chic Geek and Operation Minerva as a mentor. She says the fears young women express about their careers echo the fears women have at all ages: “How do I know that I fit in? How do I know I’m good at this? If I’m weird, how do I not stand out?” 

“One of the best answers I heard was, ‘Maybe you don’t fit in because you’re a leader, and you should embrace that. You should know that fitting in is not your end goal,’” Sanchez says.

Not all entry-level supports are aimed exclusively at girls and younger women pursuing tech careers. The Calgary chapter of Ladies Learning Code, a workshop series that began in Toronto in 2011, is aimed at anyone interested in learning coding. Its workshops welcome women returning to work after raising children, entrepreneurs who need specific technical skills and people testing the waters before investing in a degree program. 

The former Calgary chapter lead for Ladies Learning Code, Darcie Milliken, is a software developer who studied mathematics and cryptography, a field in which women are dramatically outnumbered. She says programs specifically aimed at women create a level of comfort that facilitates learning. “When you’re in a room full of women you’re not thinking about being a woman,” she says. “You’re thinking about the thing you’re thinking about.”

 

ILLUSTRATION BY TARA PAQUETTE

 

Exploring the options

Building a career as a woman in Calgary’s tech and innovation sector is like battling a hydra, says Sanchez. But in this metaphor, she isn’t the slayer — she’s the many-headed beast. Whenever Sanchez lost a head along the career path, she just grew another one and attacked from a new angle. “Many children have a dream and the moment there’s resistance it can easily distract them,” Sanchez says. “That didn’t happen to me.”

It didn’t happen to Chic Geek founder Toh either, despite experiencing what she describes as a “meltdown” the day she realized her dream of a high-powered corporate career was at odds with her wish to become a deeply engaged parent. Instead of giving up on ambition or family, Toh grew another head. Now, as a self-made founder and entrepreneur, she has options that she believes will allow her to blend her career and life in the way she wishes. “That was a very conscious choice,” Toh says of forsaking the conventional corporate path for the higher-risk start-up world. “There were no regrets.”

Toh isn’t the only one who sees the tech and innovation sector as a place where a woman can forge her own path. The A100’s van Sundert also chose to enter the tech and innovation sector because of its reputation for open-minded, flexible company cultures. “At one point in my life I was a single mom. That flexibility made all the difference,” she says. 

 

A few good men

When Reimer was launching Evoco with her husband and their business partner, she had no female role models or mentors in the business. Fortunately, she had John Eddy, who was CEO of Evoco for six years and an ongoing source of support for Reimer. “For an industry to be supportive of women, it needs supportive men,” says Reimer, who knows from experience that men in Calgary’s tech sector do value their female colleagues. “I think there is a recognition in Calgary about what women can bring to the table in the technology and innovation ecosystem,” she says.

Benevity, Sanchez’s employer, is making strides to advance women in the workplace, in part by changing the way it thinks about men. The company recently launched a shared parental leave program, which offers two weeks of paid leave and an extended-leave top-up (a fixed percentage of the employee’s salary) for fathers or mothers. While most working parents are entitled to parental leave benefits from the Government of Canada, top-up pay is a discretionary benefit offered by some employers. Many companies don’t offer top-up pay at all, and very few explicitly encourage new fathers to take it or acknowledge the importance of paternal involvement.

In an International Women’s Day blog post, Benevity founder and CEO Bryan de Lottinville encouraged other business leaders to implement similar policies. “When society can consider fathers equal parents, it can consider women equal workers,” he stated in the post.

 

Developing potential

Toh says she sees increasing evidence that gender parity is a priority in Calgary’s tech and innovation ecosystem. Chic Geek has several sponsoring companies and collaborators. The Calgary Council of Advanced Technology held a 2016 award celebration for companies committed to recruiting, retaining and advancing female employees. The Alberta Women’s Science NetworkAlberta Women Entrepreneurs and Next Gen Men, a non-profit that works with boys and men to redefine masculinity and work toward gender equality, are all chipping away at the systemic issues and stereotypes that limit women’s — and men’s — potential.

Sanchez has always balked at stereotypes, particularly the old chestnut that women are natural-born communicators, or that we can endear little girls to technical pursuits by giving them Barbie dolls with plastic laptops. Instead of wondering how to make the tech and innovation world appealing to women, she believes we should focus on the traits that draw people — men and women — to the sector. “I want to support anyone going into technology because technology is awesome and fun,” Sanchez says. “Solving problems, creating puzzles, that god-mode where you feel like you can do anything. Having girls feel that. Having anyone feel that. I think we need to stop seeing gender as binary.” 

This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Avenue Calgary. Subscribe here.