Growing gender diversity in industry

Kylie Woods, Founder and Executive Director of Chic Geek shares insights into why women don’t stay in tech

Women are underrepresented in the technology sector – including those parts directly connected to manufacturing – holding less than 25 per cent of computing roles. That figure hasn’t changed in the last 10 years. 

In Canada, women represent 47 per cent of the total workforce, but only represent 28 to 31 percent of the Information and Communication Technology workforce. The situation in the Prairies is worse than that.

Attrition spikes for women ages 35-40 as more than half of these mid-career technical women leave the industry for any number of reasons. And almost none of them return to the sector in their previous capacities.

Imagine what the technology sector – and the industries it serves and impacts – could look like if the attrition of these women wasn’t seen as just a fact of doing business. Imagine the difference that could be made by keeping the best and the brightest engaged with, excited about, and employed in the tech sector.

Prairie Manufacturer’s editor, Jeff Baker, spoke with Kylie Woods, Founder and Executive Director of Chic Geek, a Calgary-based non-profit organization that exists to build gender diversity in technology, and seeks to engage, retain, and support mid-career women in the industry through a variety of innovative programs.

This interview took place November 2, 2022, and has been edited for length and clarity. 

Jeff Baker (JB): What is Chic Geek and what is the ‘why’ behind your work?

Kylie Woods (KW): Chic Geek exists to build more gender diversity in technology. Specifically, we look at retaining mid-career women in the tech industry because our research has shown that this is a segment that is dropping out very quickly. If we don’t stop them from leaving, we won’t have women moving into leadership roles and higher-level positions to then inspire other women coming through and be those role models. So, we see this as kind of the lynchpin challenge to solve, and all our programming is designed to retain those women in tech.

JB: Was there a defining moment in our life that led to the founding of Chic Geek?

KW: The starting point really was this kernel of feelings of loneliness, isolation, of not fitting into tech as I was growing up here in the industry. I thought, I can’t be the only one feeling these things and going through these challenges, but where were the other young women like me. So I started the movement to bring women along.

My personal journey has grown well beyond that initial work community, and Chic Geek now has more than 15,000 women and allies. We’ve become very focused on the mid-career women in the tech industry.

JB: That leads nicely into my next question about the ‘leaky funnel’ I read about on your website. It seems that there’s a lot of work happening at the younger ages – for girls beginning or still in school – to get the younger women interested in a career in tech. But there seems to be something missing once they’ve entered the industry. 

What was your experience in the industry with this ‘leaky funnel’ situation? What does it actually look like in the industry?

KW: The funnel analogy really captures the gamut of challenges we see in trying to achieve gender parity in technology.

The early stages focus on attraction – how do we get girls and young women interested in and excited about opportunities in technology – but as they evolve and grow into their careers, it becomes about retention, then later when they reach more senior positions, it really is about recognition. How do we recognize and support the women who have paved the way.

The career pipeline at the intermediate career phases has some rather interesting stats. According to Statistics Canada, 34 per cent of students enrolled in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) programs are women, but as they go into the workforce, only 23 per cent of STEM jobs are held by women. So even in the transition from post-secondary into the workforce, we’re losing a segment of women for various reasons. 

So, as we continue to lose women as they progress in their careers, it becomes very difficult to see them in leadership positions, but that’s where a lot of the change that we want to see will actually happen. When we have more women in positions of leadership and authority, it creates a positive ripple throughout the rest of the pipeline, but we need to get them there first.

JB: I’ve heard – with some frequency – about the ‘bro culture’ that permeates the technology sector, with bros tending to hire other bros. Is it as big an issue as it seems?

KW: Yes, that is one aspect of it, for sure, and it’s not even just bro culture. We hear a lot of things about sexual harassment in the workplace that’s still happening, even in 2022. There are a lot of micro-aggressions, poor corporate culture, and poor teams, leadership and management that are all contributing to women dropping out.

The other side of the equation is that women are not as connected, so they they’re not networking in the same way as men. So, when it comes to moving or pivoting in their careers, they don’t have the same networks on which they can draw to say, ‘Hey, who do you know? Who can you introduce me to? What opportunities can I create for me?’ and it’s holding them back.

JB: I assume this sort of situation is seen in other sectors of industry – that it’s not just in the tech sector.

KW: Unfortunately, yes, there are a lot of sectors that have this challenge, not just technology. In the trades, in manufacturing and construction, and even in law, we see a lot of women dropping out of those professions as well. It is a workforce-wide problem.

JB: When these women are exiting the industry or exiting the sector, where are they going?

KW: Some women are leaving tech careers altogether, so they’re not putting any more use to their technical skills and backgrounds. Other are moving into unrelated careers, and some are heading into more of an entrepreneurial path. They might be consulting or starting their own businesses.

JB: Is this a challenge that’s also seen with other equity-seeking groups in the workforce, like the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, new Canadians, BIPOC communities, among others?

KW: It’s a nuanced question, so the answer is both Yes and No. Each equity-deserving group has its own challenges, and we’re very well versed with the challenges women face because that’s where our research takes us. But we also know for example that folks with disabilities, whether it’s mental or physical, face even bigger challenges in the workplace. Some of our sentiment analysis research has shown that they have more negative outlooks on their careers and the companies they work for, so this tells us that we still have a long way to go in accessibility and workplace accessibility to build those inclusive workplaces.

With new Canadians, for example, we understand that the big challenge can often be just getting your foot in the door because a lot of companies are looking for Canadian experience. So, if they don’t have that, it’s very difficult to get the first job.

There are things companies can do right away. Making it clear in their job postings and descriptions that they encourage all applicants from diverse backgrounds and that experience from other countries will be considered. It starts as simple as that.

JB: What can we be doing in the earlier stages of folks’ careers to support the presence and the retention of women in the industry? And I guess a follow-on to that is, do we need to talk to men just as much as we encourage women?

KW: Yes, it is not just a women’s problem. The lack of diversity, including gender diversity, that we’re seeing is everybody’s problem, so that’s why I say that when we build workplaces that are accommodating for more folks, it creates better spaces for all of us.

For example, if women are asking for more flexibility in their work, because they want to be available for pickups and drop-offs for their kids and workplaces make that flexibility available to all employees – not just women – it enables men to be able to do that as well. So, yes, it is critical to engage men and other gender identities as allies and champions in this work.

JB: Describe for me what the industry – either the tech sector or beyond – could look like if or when we’ve addressed these challenges. What does the future situation look like?

KW: I think that we will see a very strong talent pool in our province. When we can invite more diversity in, we’re going to see more talent arriving and we’ll be leveraging backgrounds from a lot of different places, whether it’s different countries or industries. That becomes a real competitive advantage for our whole business sector.

I think that our business performance will also do better. There’s a lot of research that shows more diverse teams have better bottom lines, and from the social side, better workplace cultures; they are places where people feel like they get to show up as their full selves – where they feel like they belong and have a supportive community around them every day. 

JB: How can folks get involved with the Chic Geek movement, and how can folks support and engage as allies?

KW: We’ve got a program called Career Pathing, which is our fresh take on a mentorship program and anyone, any gender identity, is welcome to sign up as a mentor. This is a great way for men to raise their hands as an ally and say ‘I want to support women in tech’ by having these 30-minute conversations with them. It’s very tangible way because often that’s the challenge: I want to support, but I don’t know how, and I don’t want to step on toes. Well, you can donate 30 to 60 minutes of your time every month to have a conversation with a woman in tech to support her career advancement. 

From the Career Pathing program, we’re seeing some great results for the women who participate: 60 per cent of participants achieve their career goal, 30 per cent are pivoting into tech from other careers, and 25 per cent of them are advancing their careers through promotion. The research has shown if we can reduce attrition by 25 per cent, we will add 220,000 women back into science, engineering, and technology.

The impact we’re seeing in the Career Pathing program is strong, and the program is a great way for companies to get involved. We can roll it out internally for companies and engage their own people as mentors and mentees, and we can share aggregated insights about women in tech from our larger community as well. 

JB: What’s being left on the table right now by not properly retaining women in the industry?

KW: Right now, particularly in Alberta, tech talent is hot, and it’s hard to find. It’s becoming a battlefield to hire, especially when you’re competing against much larger companies in the Unites States that have the big budgets. So, companies are investing very heavily in attraction and recruitment, but where they’re falling off a bit is in the retention piece.

What these companies are leaving on the table is that the average cost of turnover for a tech employee is $144,000 USD. Those are just the costs in lost productivity, and for recruiting, on-boarding and training. If companies aren’t investing in retention at the same time they’re also recruiting, it’s money down the drain when they start to lose people. 

JB: What advice could you offer to industry leaders looking to improve the retention of women in the workforce? 

KW: The time is now to lean in. If you’re not doing the work now, you risk falling behind. Investing in equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) is a competitive advantage for recruitment, attraction, and retention. I think we’re going to see the companies investing in this work significantly pulling ahead of their competitors. 

The other thing I would say is that you don’t need to have all the answers yourself as a leader who wants to support diversity work. You need to ask good questions and be a strong facilitator, and that will carry you through your EDI journey.

JB: Do you have any words of wisdom you would offer the girls thinking about tech as a career or the younger women in the early days of their careers?

KW: What we often see in young girls is that they go into careers where they get to help people. There’s this community imperative, and a lot of young women are looking for that impact piece. 

Technology is one of, if not the biggest enabler for solving global problems for many people, so tech is a space where you can build your career but also have a significant impact and help a lot of lives, which is exciting.

JB: How can companies or potential partners get involved with Chic Geek?

KW: Chic Geek is always looking for partners to engage and support our work around retaining women in technology, so we’d love to have conversations with any companies looking to support that space. A lot of the work we do is virtual, so we’re looking to engage folks right across the Prairies and across Canada.