Montreal is one of the growing tech hubs in North America, and the number of women joining the tech and startup industry is growing. However, though the number of women entering this traditionally male-dominated tech sphere is burgeoning, there still remain barriers to establishing complete gender balance in these communities.
Those working in the Montreal tech scene generally feel it to be a woman-friendly environment. Alexandra Ruaux, who currently owns her own web design and 3-D printing consulting company, Molecularcode Webdesign, told The Daily in an interview: “I’ve never felt being a woman has been a disadvantage…My actual experience has been very positive, and I’ve found balance to be very equal.”
However, she noted that there appear to be specific niches within the tech industry in which women work. “I know a lot of women doing all sorts of jobs, [but] there is a definite imbalance in the types of jobs.” Mathieu Leduc-Hamel, president of Montreal Python (a group designed to promote the use of the Python programming language and strengthen the developer community) and Mandy Poon, digital marketing consultant at w.illi.am (a company involved in cross-functional consulting and digital development), also commented on this imbalance in distribution. They noted that things like web development that involve so-called “hard-coding” are still very much male dominated.
“[Once you] open the definition to public management and marketing, you will get more women, but there is some type of barrier that women don’t seem to be comfortable crossing in the field…We still have the image of the computer-related field as a male-centric industry.” Additionally, almost all founders of startup companies in Montreal are male. Startups are companies in their initial stages of operation, designed to develop a new product or service. Though she owns her own business, Ruaux doesn’t consider it a startup company. According to her, “almost all startups [in Montreal] where there is more than one person was [started by] a male. I can’t think of a single startup that is owned by a female…though I know a lot of women who work for themselves.”
Besides these differences, women’s interest in entering tech can be strongly influenced during school. The world of technology is one that is rapidly evolving and developing, and with that comes a creation of a wide variety of different types of jobs. However, though the tech landscape is changing rapidly, schools do not present all the jobs that are in the realm of possibility. Poon told The Daily that she did not realize a career in public relations could involve tech. She said, “I feel that the problem might be that a lot of jobs in tech have changed in the past, say, four years, and it has changed so quickly that schools and the literature have not caught up…I graduated from a PR management program at McGill two years ago, but even then, I didn’t do a single course on digital technology.”
Neither Poon nor Ruaux started in tech – Poon studied political science and public relations, while Ruaux began her career as a biochemist. When asked how she got a job in digital marketing, Poon recalled that, “It was truly by accident, and I feel for a lot of people it happens by accident.”
Ruaux also admits that she “partially fell into it.” Though she originally came to Montreal to hold a postdoctoral position in biochemistry, she eventually decided to leave the field. While looking for job prospects, she began to design websites for some organizations. When she realized she could make money doing this, she decided to create her own company.
This situation begs the question as to why there is a lack of women in these specific fields, even as involvement in the industry as a whole increases. An important consideration is the fact that men and women face different challenges. For instance, pregnancy and giving birth distinctively affect females. As a result, there are issues with stereotypes, expectation, and inequities in pay scale and time off in the workplace. Web development is something that still remains largely male-dominated, while areas involving social media (such as digital marketing and community management) find a large increase in female involvement. “It might be things that women are less interested in,” says Poon, “…I feel as though women are less attracted to the role of development, one of those jobs where you are solitary and do a lot of work alone. A lot of women I’ve spoken to really enjoy the interactive aspect of a job, [and] you have things that are rising [for women] like social media.” Though varying interests may lead to the difference in distribution, cultural stereotypes affect the willingness of women to explore the predominantly male fields.
In Montreal, current efforts are underway to promote the inclusion of women in the tech scene – for women to explore and develop technology-related skills. Montreal Girl Geeks provides a platform for women to be trained and to meet other like-minded women, by hosting events and providing resources. Additionally, other Montreal tech groups like Montreal Python hold women-only programming workshops. Hamel reflects that in previous years, the audiences at their programming workshops were composed largely of men; however, hosting women-only events allows for a safe space in which women can feel as though they belong.
They have found these efforts bring more women to their mixed-gender events as well. “It made a big difference just to let them know it’s open to anyone…It’s a matter of making them feel like they belong,” said Hamel. In addition, women-specific events allow women to connect and support each other. “I think that the events made specifically for women are very effective, in the sense that you are able to network with a bunch of people who have had the same challenges as you…and you want to be ensured that you will be in an environment where you know people will be supportive as to what you are doing,” says Poon.
Though the media often speaks of the lack of women in tech, it is not simply a numbers game. According to Hamel, at the most recent Pycon (a conference that brings together Python users) the attendees were 20 per cent women – a big increase from previous years. However, despite the growth in numbers, there are still major problems that arise with regards to women in tech. Even in very recent news, we see incidents such as the uproar caused by a woman tweeting about two men making sexist comments at the Pycon conference, and an article released by Complex magazine depicting the “40 hottest women in tech,” that offended and infuriated a huge number of women. The reality is, women still need to work harder to be taken seriously in the male-dominated tech world.
However, the future does look bright. There are a large number of women in tech, especially in Montreal, and the numbers are growing – with the efforts of organizations to promote women-only events making a large contribution. The problem is not that there aren’t enough women interested in pursing tech careers, but that there is a need to learn how to cater to different needs and better integrate men and women in working environments. This involves keying in on people’s talents while providing opportunities to show them all the options. As digital technology develops there will be an increasing need for different types of roles, meaning that ultimately, diversity will play a crucial role in the development of tech.