Tag Archives: women in tech

Beware the echo chamber

This first appeared on the MaRS blog October 19, 2012.

There’s a black hole that we’re in danger of being sucked into, and it’s more treacherous than Felix Baumgartner’s space jump. The danger I’m talking about is the echo chamber.

Usually when I reference the “echo chamber,” I’m talking about social media. I’m in complete agreement with many of the contemporary thought leaders and pundits who have written and spoken at great length on the issue (see Eli PariserElizabeth LesserClay Johnson and Rebecca MacKinnon). They all warn us of the dangers of filtering out a variety of voices and listening to only one point of view. Social media and a curated web experience are enablers of this, but it’s not just social media that is responsible for that closed perspective. It’s us. And I want no part in it.

“echo chamber” used by permission @gapingvoid

While attending the Techtoberfest event at Communitech last week, I realized a number of things.

  1. I am so proud to have surrounded myself with friends and colleagues who are passionate about what they do and what they bring to the world.
  2. I know some incredibly talented people who work incredibly hard to build an ecosystem that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship, and to drive prosperity in Ontario.
  3. We’re all in danger of stagnating if we don’t pay close attention—and fast.

Out of Techtoberfest’s 15 breakout sessions, only two were facilitated by women.

Out of a total of 19 companies that pitched, only one team had women on the stage. One.

I sat in one of those breakout sessions, titled “Y Entrepreneurship,” and while it certainly intended to be a take on the Y generation, it could have been more representative of the gender in the audience. Besides my colleague and myself, the only other women I saw in the room were part of the hard-working team thatactually work for Communitech to make these events happen.

One of the facilitators asked the audience to participate in the conversation regarding “Why entrepreneurship?”—and he encouraged us all to participate. He asked about six audience members (who he all knew by name) why they were drawn to entrepreneurship. Those six people were all male, all (seemingly) in their 20s and all Caucasian. All of the panellists were also Caucasian and male. I took the opportunity to share an observation.

Do you see the danger?

The point I made to our facilitator was thus: literature exists ad naseam stating that businesses that have women in roles of leadership perform better. They have more longevity and they realize more financial success. Whether we’re talking about entrepreneurs, the whole startup ecosystem in Ontario or each one of us as individuals, the threat is the same. When you don’t have the diversity of views and experience that come from people of different ages, different races and different genders, you’re living in that echo chamber of “Aren’t we great? Aren’t we great? Aren’t we great?.” You may be great, but without a broader scope of input and ideas, you’re about to stagnate. Thankfully, there were a lot of nodding heads in the room in support of this discussion.

There are definitely two parts to this. I tweeted my observation about the lack of women represented, and author, speaker and columnist Julia Moulden and I had a great dialogue online about the need for women to be invited into the discussion, but also about how many women don’t ask to participate or don’t say “yes” to opportunities to speak.

From that, we’ve started a new hashtag campaign. It’s time for women to stop wondering if they have something important to say or share. It’s time for them to take the mic and #BeAYesWoman.

This experience is certainly not limited to the Kitchener-Waterloo area. I see it in Toronto and, quite literally, in every startup community—both online and in real life. The startup community needs to include more women as speakers, it needs to draw more women into the entrepreneurship fold and it needs more women as leaders in their businesses if they want to succeed.

If there is anyone who can realize this, it’s the community of people I’ve met at our fellow Regional Innovation Centres and universities, and in our extended startup communities. We’re the ones changing things because we’re talking about it, we’re calling it out and we’re reaching out to do something about it, too. But this will not change through and by women alone. And it shouldn’t—because that would just be an echo chamber of a different kind.

We need everyone involved in this conversation. Everyone calling for change. Everyone striving for something more for each and every Ontarian.

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There’s power in thy words

My latest blog from the MaRS site:

A few months ago, I sat down via Skype with Melanie Baker, a friend of MaRS and currently the community manager, developer relations, at Research in Motion. Melanie’s a no-nonsense kind of woman, which is precisely why we get along. We chatted about a variety of topics, including being part of a startup that was purchased by Google, women working in the fields of technology, women leaders and the power of networks and communities. One thing that she said to me during our conversation really stuck out: “If more women wanted to be in tech, more women would be in tech.”

I understand where Melanie’s coming from, because in her world and in her experience, you just “do the job,” and if you’re talented and capable, you make your own opportunities. I have to ask though, is it that simple for other women? Sadly, I don’t think so.

While attending a pub night back in March 2012 with the fabulous Waterloo Women in Technology group , Caity Dyck, manager of the University of Waterloo’s summer camp Engineering Science Quest, spoke to the gathering about the decline of girls and women in engineering. Case in point: in 2011, only 16% of students enrolled in engineering at University of Waterloo were women.

She spoke about how from kindergarten to Grade 2, girls’ interest in engineering is pretty much on par with boys, but by the third grade, girls already feel like they’re not as good as boys at science and math. Subsequently, girls’ further interest in engineering plummets. Whether it’s due to peer pressure or the undue influence of the gender-driven marketing of toys, it’s a disconcerting trend that perpetuates barriers against women entering engineering, and other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries.

Here’s the thing: when girls are told that engineering helps people, families and communities with systemic issues, such as access to clean water or sustainably improving agricultural yields, their interest skyrocketsagain. It’s all in how you present it. When presented that way to girls, this is what they think of when they think of engineering:

It’s just one perspective, but it goes to show just how important language is in formulating one’s thought processes, and perhaps one’s future opportunities as well.

Just last week, an article that highlighted research by San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge showed that since 1900, as women’s participation grew in post-secondary education and the workforce, so did the prevalence of the female pronoun on the printed page. Does the increase in seeing the female pronoun encourage more women to participate in these formerly male-dominated fields? Is it a direct cause and effect? Chicken, egg? I’m not sure, but my instincts tell me that they’re intrinsically tied.

We’ve been having this conversation for many, many years. Language is an ever-evolving realm. We no longer speak in Shakespearean couplets, and every year new words are added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Resources such as Words That Count Women In by the Ontario Women’s Directorate and Talking Gender by Ruth King, both originally published in the early ’90s, introduced me to the power and impact of language. Having a young daughter also instilled in me the importance that my choices had in formulating her own internal messaging.

Instead of bowing to pressure or being derided for being too “politically correct,” I choose to use the power of language to be more inclusive and more accurate (after all, “staffing the table” is more accurate than “manning the table”), and this insight about the impact of changing the language around engineering continues to reinforce that this is a choice that has impact, not only for women in the field of technology, but ultimately for the betterment of our world all told.

 


When we all win, we all win.

A new blog series I’ve started at MaRS.

When we all win, we all win.


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