Listen up, girls: a tech career isn't just for gamers and AI enthusiasts

Although Katie Meyer, 19, has considered a career in technology, she isn’t sure it’s in the cards for her.

Three years ago, when she was 16, her mother enrolled her in a coding camp for girls.

“They made it really friendly for people that age, so it was really easy to learn,” Meyer says. “We just sat down and started learning HTML and CSS.”

She decided to pursue coding, so she took a course at her high school. It didn’t go as well. “It was hell on earth! Like, it was awful.”


A little more than one quarter of STEM graduates in Canada are women, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company. (iStock)

She felt out of her element, and couldn’t quite catch up to the rest of her classmates. She says it didn’t help that she was one of only two girls in that class. “All the guys knew exactly what they were doing.”

Meyer, a history buff, ended up dropping that course and hasn’t pursued coding since. Stories like hers are playing out across the country.

According to consulting firm McKinsey & Company, men vastly outnumber women in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Only 28 per cent of STEM graduates are women, and only 23 per cent of people working in high-paying STEM industries are women.

Industry leaders are trying to improve those statistics and say the best way to get more women into tech is to change the conversation around what tech is — and what it’s not.

Girls in Science

Female representation in STEM fields is even lower, at just 23 per cent of all workers, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company. (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada)

Andrea Stairs, managing director of eBay Canada, spends a lot of time thinking about how to increase the ranks of women in her field.

“I don’t think tech is a particularly friendly environment for women and I think we see that over and over again. It’s depressing,” Stairs says.

Cast wider nets

Ebay has made a commitment to tracking diversity within the company, which employs 12,600 people globally. The last snapshot is from 2016 and it shows that women make up 22 per cent of its tech workforce.

If you look at non-tech roles like human resources and marketing, that number climbs to 48 per cent.

Stairs says tech firms need to cast wider nets when recruiting and be open to bringing on women who may not have experience in STEM, like her.

“My background is in law and finance, ” she explains. “When I joined eBay, I didn’t intend to have a role in technology. But what I found was a really fast-paced energetic business culture that I could contribute to.”

Women in the workforce in Canada, STEM

One way to increase gender diversity within tech companies may be to increase awareness about how all-encompassing the industry is becoming. Take for example, Joanna Griffiths, who is the founder and CEO of Knixwear, a company that makes moisture-wicking undergarments.

“If you looked at us from the outside, you’re like ‘that’s not a tech company.’ But underneath the hood, or underneath the clothes, you’d say we’re very much a tech company.”

At the helm of Knixwear, she’s overseeing the kinds of things that STEM CEOs typically do: intellectual property filings, working with York University’s biometric lab and figuring out how to best use artificial intelligence and machine learning for marketing purposes.

She says “tech touches every single component of our organization.”

Knixwear moisture wicking undergarments

The CEO of Knixwear, a Canadian company that makes moisture-wicking undergarments, says ‘tech touches every single component of our organization.’ (Knixwear)

While Griffiths was doing her MBA, she knew that business was her forte. But it took a real-life example to drive home the idea that tech could be part of the equation for her. That came in the form of the founder of Spanx, the maker of those body-shaping undergarments.

“Sara Blakely, the woman who founded Spanx, who is the youngest self-made female billionaire in the history of the United States, was getting a ton of press coverage around her company. And here was someone that I identified with,” she says.

Spanx probably isn’t what springs to mind when you think of a tech company. But the research and development that goes into creating and manufacturing that intimate apparel is comparable to what a traditional tech company goes through to make your favourite tech gadget.


Undergarment company Spanx isn’t a conventional technology firm but the obstacles that founder Sara Blakely had to overcome to get the company off the ground are similar to those that many tech firms experience. (Reuters)

Stairs says female leaders currently working in the STEM field need to get their message out to young girls. That means telling them tech “isn’t just the domain of gamers and folks that are interested in robotics.”

Stairs says this notion that a career in STEM fields means they have to give up the things they’re interested in, is outdated.

“It’s also fashion and health and beauty and sports.”

Flipped classroom biology students

Young women need to be taught at an early age that technology “isn’t just the domain of gamers and folks that are interested in robotics,” eBay Canada’s Andrea Stairs says. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

For Meyer, hearing that a career in STEM fields doesn’t mean saying goodbye to the things she’s passionate about, put a smile on her face and the idea that a career in tech could still be part of her future.

“I’m so into fashion, makeup and theatre,” she says exuberantly.