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Women in STEAM Take Centre Stage at New Westminster’s Innovation Week

By March 12, 2019No Comments

Although the tech industry in British Columbia is expanding rapidly, the representation of women in the sector is not keeping pace.

According to a Women in Tech World and Discovery Foundation gender-equality road-map report—a study that determines how many women are currently in tech-related jobs—men continue to significantly outnumber their female counterparts. That’s not due, however, to women’s lack of interest in the sector. Data from the report shows that women represent 54 percent of B.C.’s postsecondary graduates in science and technology—but most never make it to a job in their area of study. Of B.C.’s STEM workforce, women make up only 15 to 20 percent: a number that, strikingly, is well below the Canadian average of 25 percent.

Now, cities and municipalities are stepping up to close that gap.

This year, New Westminster is leading the charge with its third annual Innovation Week. The seven-day event brings leaders together to discuss the issues facing Canadian cities and will culminate on Friday (March 8)—International Women’s Day—with a daylong summit focusing on promoting and celebrating women in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics). Assembling individuals from governments, nonprofits, academia, and private business, the event will break down what’s working and what is still needed to advance female representation in tech fields.

For Denise Williams, CEO of the First Nations Technology Council, offering a forum for female voices is vital to moving the culture forward.

“What’s holding women back?” she asks herself on the line from her North Van office, discussing the panel she is set to moderate at the Innovation Week event. “I think there are a few things. I think that for midcareer women like me, we haven’t necessarily seen ourselves represented in STEAM. [Of] the women that we do know, I feel they have been outliers in a lot of ways. I think without that kind of encouragement and exemplars of what being a woman in STEAM looks like, it’s hard to imagine yourself in that role.

“For anyone who’s looking for a new career, you’d like to talk to someone else who’s in it and who can share what to expect, so that you can determine whether it’s something you’d like to spend time and money and education to go into,” she continues. “I think that’s emerging at the moment. There’s an admirable network of women, especially in British Columbia in STEAM, who have come together to be those champions. They are visible, and they’re trying to make it more accessible. I think that’s probably one of the bigger barriers, and one of the places I’ve seen the biggest movement in a positive way.”

Also helping to increase female representation in tech fields is a rise in government-funded programs. The First Nations Technology Council, for instance, has just launched two new initiatives—foundations in innovation and technology, and futures in innovation and technology—that will introduce young Indigenous people to the sector and boost those with the enthusiasm and aptitude into tech careers. Most applicants are women in their mid-20s and -30s.

Leading a panel of executives from similar nonprofit organizations at the event, Williams will discuss how greater collaboration will help get individuals like those into tech.

“Most of us are program-funded,” she says. “So our program funding, coming from government, really asks us to work in silos. Everyone’s got their mandates and agendas. There’s something greater in coming together, because at the end of the day, we all want the best for our participants. There is no one program or organization that can really address all the needs of a person. At the moment, it feels like a lot of responsibility lies with the individual to navigate all the systems…That’s counterproductive for them, but also for us as well, because we don’t have eyes on what really made a difference, where we could better support people, and therefore how we can advocate for that in the future.

“I always say that innovation is predicated on diversity of thought,” she continues. “I think it’s really important for cities and municipalities to consider that and how to bring different voices in closer.”