March is known as Women’s History Month, a time designed to highlight and celebrate the contributions of influential women in society. March 8, meanwhile, is historically considered International Women’s Day.
Women have made their mark in every industry, from science to technology, cinema to medicine, business to education, and more. In the tech space in particular, women continue to prove that they have plenty to add to an industry that has long been dominated by men. Women are making waves in STEM fields, developing innovative technology products, software, and apps, coding and programming, building speakers, running multimillionaire dollar companies, and working in important and often underappreciated departments like marketing and customer relations.
For several years now, WiFi HiFi has been running an ongoing series called Women in Tech, highlighting influential women in the tech space in Canada and beyond. The women we have featured over the years span every facet of the business. Some work on the enterprise side, some consumer-facing. Some are in managerial roles, others are entrepreneurs who have started their own successful businesses. But each has provided insightful commentary on what it’s like to be a female in the male-dominated tech industry. Many people, male and female, often think the biases do not exist anymore in business, or they personally are not guilty of perpetuating them. The good news: the positive comments from these women indicate that we have come a long way. The bad: the varied accounts also prove that we still have a long way to go.
Over the years, the women we have profiled have discussed challenges they have faced, myths they have overcome, and growth and change they have seen. They have reinforced the importance of mentorship and increased visibility to encourage mindset change in young workers and employers. And they have highlighted the soft skills that uniquely position many females for success, like empathy, critical thinking, and the ability to multitask.
Here, however, we have excerpted some of the most eye-opening commentary from these ladies that sheds light on perceptions, misconceptions, and what needs to change to make the industry better and more open to female leadership. Many of the recollections are from past experiences, and many of the women note that they have already been seeing tremendous change over the last few years.
Nonetheless, these insights are worth revisiting to fully understand the complex web women navigate in the tech space.
“Many use language like ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ making women feel like they need to be superwomen, juggling it all. Instead, let’s build a support system that actually helps women do it.” – Megan McMurray, General Manager, Toronto, Billdr Renovation home renovation project planning and construction management
“During the pandemic…reports [indicated] that women are better leaders during a crisis, even coining the phrase ‘the glass cliff.’ The glass cliff describes the idea that when a company is in trouble, a female leader is put in charge to save it.” – Swati Matta, Founder & CEO, Koble, a digital health app for expecting and new parents
“Looking back, I didn’t express myself with the same level of assertiveness and confidence that my male counterparts did. Ironically, this was not because I didn’t have an opinion or believe in myself, but I hadn’t learned the implicit behaviours that were valued in a male-dominated environment. So, I was often overlooked when it came to promotions and increased responsibilities.” – Amrita Gurney, Head of Marketing, Float, a smart corporate card and spend management software
“I will never forget giving a presentation early in my career to a team of male executives and instead of them asking me questions, they chose not to direct them at me, but at my male colleague who was not the SME. This was extremely disheartening, but I wouldn’t change that experience because it has taught me how to confidently handle those situations myself, and how to teach other women how to take back control of the room when faced with similar scenarios.” – Chantel Lillycrop, Director of Sales and Business Development, Bitcoin Well, a Canadian technology company that provides easy, safe, and secure ways to buy, sell, and use Bitcoin
“Women have to work that much harder to stand on the same level playing field as men in most industries, and I’m often the type who simply doesn’t stop until I’m standing right next to them. If they don’t offer you a chair at the table, bring your own.” – Tara Jensen, Member, Parent and Community Panel at Sonderly, an online technology education tool that provides educators with access to mental health and autism-related training materials to better support neurodiverse students beyond the post-pandemic era, and mental health advocate
“From being passed over for promotions I was qualified for because ‘it’s just more fun to have a beer with the other guy’ to being set back for taking maternity leave (as many women are), I’ve had to work twice as hard to get where I am.” – Shir Magen, CEO, HomeStars, a tech platform hosting a network of verified and community-reviewed home service professionals within Canada
“We need to mentor women, especially those early in their careers, to understand that promotions are seldom gifted and opportunities need to be created and grabbed. Sitting and waiting patiently for someone to recognize your work and contributions is not an efficient way to get up top. You have to be the creator of change.” – Shir Magen, CEO, HomeStars, a tech platform hosting a network of verified and community-reviewed home service professionals within Canada.
“I think a lot of people have imposter syndrome – they don’t feel they deserve to be starting a company, running a business, growing a start-up, or in a senior position at a company. And oftentimes, it’s especially the women around me who are afraid of coming across as too opinionated, aggressive, and promotional.” – Fatima Zaidi, Founder & CEO, Quill, Co-Chair, #Tech4SickKids
“[A] misconception is that all women should, or want to, be treated the same. We are all individuals who have different needs based on demands on our time, and there is no one solution to ‘fix’ gender disparity in the technology space.” – Tiffany Jung, COO, Commit, a remote-first developer community for start-up engineers
“For many years, I was often the only woman in a group full of men. I was literally the token woman. More than anything, the roadblocks I experienced were more subtle microaggressions versus blatant sexism, whether it be exclusion to offsite ‘meetings’ (golf) to being disregarded or talked over in team meetings. Sadly, for many years, I didn’t know any better and I just assumed these things were normal in the industry.” – Cheryl Stookes, Vice President, Revenue Growth & Operations, Softchoice
“There is nothing I love more than when a dad takes parental leave. Not only for the benefit of that individual father and their family, but also for the message it sends to every future parent, team member, and leader at the organization. If the culture of an organization is that ALL parents take family leave, and this leave does not impact career growth, I see this having such a positive impact on the talented, ambitious, and driven female members of the team who one day hope to have families of their own.” – Andrea MacDonald, Head of Tech, Telco, M&E, Twitter Canada
“Hustle culture is toxic. If you’ve built a start-up where everyone needs to work 100-hour weeks for things to not fall apart, you’ve built the wrong thing. It’s the operations manager in me, but a system with that little slack in it is a ticking time bomb. Moreover, I know lots of people – not just women – who have full lives outside of work, whether it’s hobbies, a bustling social life, or a family, and it shouldn’t have to be one or the other.” – Sarah Wilkinson, CEO, Dr. Bill, an intelligent billing platform for physicians
“Early in my career, I had been asked – more than once – to come to meetings and not say anything, but to sit there and ‘look pretty.’ Instead of letting those experiences get me down, I’ve used those situations as fuel to drive my success and career growth…My gender, marital status, and the fact that I have children have all been brought up in performance reviews early in my career. People think they’re protecting me by being concerned about my ability to do it all, but I don’t see it that way. From my perspective, they’re holding me back, and that’s an example of unconscious bias.” – Shannon Leininger, President, Cisco Canada
“My undergrad IIT class had 27 girls in a batch of 575. To this day, some of the challenges women face include getting less credit when something is a success, and huge discredit if something is a failure. When you are successful, the success is attributed to external factors – someone helped you as they liked you romantically, someone else on your team or senior was actually responsible for the idea and execution, et cetera. When you are unsuccessful, it’s attributed to your lack of capabilities, motivation (mistaking humility for lack of ambition) and ‘distractions’ (relationships, family, et cetera).” – Khushboo Jha, CEO & Founder, BuyProperly, an AI-driven fractional real estate investing platform
“In a male-dominated industry such as tech, there is typically a greater need for women to speak up against implicit bias and challenge the status quo. While I used to shy away from these types of difficult conversations out of fear of being dismissed as ‘too sensitive,’ more recently, I am finding ways to share my perspective in a constructive way.” Alexandra Voyevodina-Wang, President and General Manager, Endy
“One thing I wish was done differently is that women would be more willing to challenge the stereotypes of the tech industry. Despite the barriers they, and I, face every day, I hope that they will start to feel empowered by the roles they are in, and to recognize their own potential and impressive capabilities.” – Bahar Miraftab, Head of Marketing & Communications, Sonderly, the learning division of the Geneva Centre for Autism
“There are the overt comments I’ve witnessed from past colleagues about women being harder to manage because they’re more vocal, or male team members refusing to hire women on their team because their wives wouldn’t like it…Unfortunately, it’s common for women – especially in the financial or technology industries – to be asked very personal questions.” – Andrea Bartlett, Director of HR, Humi, a Toronto-based human resources technology company that provides HR software for SMBs
“Women do not need to adjust their tone or shrink themselves to fit into a room dominated by men. If you feel like you have to do that, you may be in the wrong room.” – Andrea Bartlett, Director of HR, Humi, a Toronto-based human resources technology company that provides HR software for SMBs
“I think as a woman in a typically male-dominated industry like science and technology, it’s not necessarily so much about the large, obvious examples of inequality that one experiences, but the small and seemingly trivial habits of the industry that are inherently problematic. Passing over a female candidate for a promotion because it involves too much time away from home, or men in leadership giving male colleagues more favourable treatment and opportunities because they relate to them more than their female colleagues – these are all small gestures we may not see as clearly as the bigger aggressions, but they’re harmful for systems and prevent progression and growth. Many people may not even realize they hold these implicit biases, so it’s important for businesses to address these issues to all staff and provide opportunities to change habits.” – Celine Lee, Country Manager, Alexa Canada, Amazon’s virtual assistant AI technology
“I think people can often get intimidated when we try and bring these perspectives to the table, assuming we’re trying to show why women are better than men at the job. But the issue is not necessarily about proving how a woman can be better at the job than a man, but how positive reinforcement of new ideas and innovations can lead to better performance, better success, company growth, more profits, and an overall higher-performing business.” – Celine Lee, Country Manager, Alexa Canada, Amazon’s virtual assistant AI technology
“I was working for a logistics company and I was the only woman in a management position. I was dismissed from a planning meeting by our national managing director. Apparently, I wasn’t needed, even though I had developed the client strategy that was to be presented. I was the only woman around the conference table and the only logistics engineer on the team with that plan…I was trained as a leader in the most male-dominated sector, the military. I learned to stand-up, speak up, and fight for what I believe in.” – Angela Mondou, CEO & President, Technation, a national technology industry association
“Like some of my peers, I’ve experienced comments such as, ‘You probably got that job because they needed a woman,’ or, ‘You have a better shot than I do because you’re female.’ I never let those comments resonate. Instead, I moved forward with the confidence that I was in the role because I was the most skilled or experienced candidate or had the greatest potential for success. It’s important to remember that you are your primary brand ambassador.” – Rebecca Leach, Country Manager, Canada, AppDynamics, part of Cisco, an application performance management and IT operations analytics company
“I like to flip that notion on its head and think how rare and wonderful it can be to be noticed. To be one of few at the table who is different. I encourage women in technology to embrace the opportunity to have a voice. Share your thoughts and ideas. Educate and influence others. Own your difference.” – Rebecca Leach, Country Manager, Canada, AppDynamics, part of Cisco, an application performance management and IT operations analytics company
“When fighting past employers for raises for women on my team, I heard senior leaders say things like, ‘She doesn’t need a raise, her husband makes a high salary.’ That thinking is arguably sexist and totally misses the fact that salary should be a tangible acknowledgement of work well done and nothing else.” – Emily Jones Joanisse, CEO & co-founder, Connected Canadians, a nonprofit organization that promotes digital literacy skills amongst seniors and older adults
“I’ve had conversations with men in my industry who assume that women leave because of a single incident of harassment, or because they just aren’t strong enough to handle the competitive atmosphere. But as I mentioned above, the experience of being a woman in the tech industry, from my perspective, goes beyond something one drunk or aggressive guy said one time in one meeting. From my perspective, an even larger tragedy is that the men around us frequently don’t see what we are capable of and don’t give us the same opportunities to develop our talents that they give other men they identify with. This is a waste of our time, and eventually, many of us choose to leave and use our talents elsewhere. And the world suffers as a result.” – Brie Code, CEO and Creative Director of TRU LUV, a Toronto-based studio that makes AI companions for smartphones
“I see that as women, we need to push back on assumptions that are being based on gender, even if it is happening in seemingly harmless ways. In some cases, I think there is an automatic assumption that women want to take on the nurturing, office-culture tasks, like organizing team lunches or decorating the office around holidays. In the past, I noticed these were often asked of me and not of my male colleagues.” – Sara Hurst, Director, Client Development and Success at SAP Concur
“While I was working in marketing for a small start-up, a female colleague and I were ready to present our H2 plan. We were prepared, and I was excited because this was our chance to speak to all the executives and board members and showcase all the hard work we had done. At the last minute, a male vice president came in and told us that he would be presenting instead. I knew it was not about our presentation style – we had a very solid and well-conceptualized plan. It came down to issues of age and gender. This was an extremely hard and discouraging situation to deal with.” – Victoria DeBoon, Director of Sales, SAP Concur
“I have had some comments that have been made from those being surprised after learning I hold a degree in industrial engineering such as, ‘are you really an engineer or did you buy the Iron Ring?’ It’s important to remember that at the end of the day, it’s about letting your work show for itself.” – Lauren Howe, Manager, Product and Business Development, Advocate for Youth in STEM, and former Miss Universe Canada
“Women can also be held to a double standard and are required to show more evidence of competence and our judgement is anecdotally questioned more than male counterparts. As we continue to educate the industry on the challenges that are faced and the contributions that are made, the full capability of women in tech will hopefully be realized.” – Paula Hodgins, President, HPE Canada
“Men and women have evolved to have distinct characteristics that provide different perspectives. When this is acknowledged within an organization, it can be worked to great advantage.” – Lucy Lentini, Vice President, Sales & Marketing, Totem Acoustic
“I was upfront about my lack of experience and industry knowledge from the get-go, but also made my drive and willingness to learn very clear. That actually garnered a lot of support from our dealer base (whom I was interacting with the most at that time), and today, I’m lucky to call a number of those individuals who mentored me, friends.” – Agata Mossop, Vice President, Business Development, Lenbrook International
“I recently reflected on the progress of women in leadership positions and in the workplace in general during my 30-year career, and I am disappointed to tell you that we haven’t made much progress at all. There have not been any significant changes to the support provided to women during the years when their children are young. This is when we lose women in the workforce, and we need to create environments to keep them at work: job sharing, part-time options, parental leave, affordable daycare, et cetera. If we can support women through these crucial years, they will be able to stay in the workforce and ultimately be our future leaders.” – Mary Peterson, Vice President, Enterprise and IT Solutions, Samsung Electronics Canada
“Early on in my career, I didn’t feel like I had the right to share my opinion or ideas in a meeting full of men. Needless to say, I overcame that fear pretty quickly when I came to realize that speaking up was the only way to make my voice matter.” – Mary Ann Yule, President and CEO, HP Canada
“Earlier in my career, I sat in meetings where it was openly discussed about whether a given woman would likely be having children in the near future and how that affected her eligibility for a promotion or opportunity.” – Ruth Casselman, COO and co-founder of Alert Labs
“I believe equal pay for equal work should be a requirement. While many companies may say they offer equal pay, the reality is there are still a lot of women who are paid less than men. This needs to change.” – Lisa McManus, Retail Marketing and Sales Account Manager, Intel Canada
“Today, the ‘Me Too’ movement has exploded, and society is aware of how women have been talked too, gestured at, and approached by men. It knocks your confidence and self-esteem down a few notches. Most women do not come out of this stronger. But some do and have the will to push on and be successful.” – Fiona Jeffery, CEO and co-founder, Affinity Electronics of Canada
“It is really up to women themselves to believe that they can take on any job and in any level of the technology industry. I feel, ironically, that women receive better treatment and support from men when they are in weaker positions. With more power, the labels get stronger. I believe it is due to the male ego. And I understand that it is a psychological effect that most men have. So, I try to tell myself not to be let down by their comments. Respect will be earned eventually. At the same time, I also try to learn to be diplomatic to avoid hurting the ‘male ego,’ which is sometimes not an easy task.” – Lily Luo, Owner/Operator, XLO Electric