Workshops for women in technology are failing women

The gender gap in the technology sector is no secret.

While women make up 40 per cent of the world’s workforce – and in some countries like Canada and the U.S., that number has risen to almost 50 per cent in recent years – those numbers drop significantly when it comes to the tech industry.

The field is notoriously male-dominant at every level in every country, with the starkest difference coming from up top. In Canada, for example, a recent survey of more than 900 Canadian tech firms found that women account for just five per cent of CEO roles and 13 per cent of executive positions, while more than half of the companies surveyed have no female executives at all.

Globally, fewer than 28 per cent of the overall workforces at giant tech companies like Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, Uber, Facebook, Apple, Google, and Microsoft were female in 2017.

The industry has responded by hosting women in tech events that it hopes will not only bolster the number of women in the field but also build a better, more supportive ecosystem for women already in it.

As a tech journalist, and the only female on my editorial team, I’ve been to many of these events. I’ve met incredible, successful women, as well as amazing men doing their best to buck trends and be allies for women empowerment. I’ve learned a lot, both about the industry and about myself.

As a precursor to what I’m about to write, I genuinely enjoy these events and the people I meet at them. I consider myself a feminist and I believe most people are too. Do you believe women should vote and have the same social standing as men? You’re a feminist. Do you believe women should be paid as much as men? Yep, you’re a feminist. I tend to use the phrase “common sense” but I won’t get into the semantics here.

Positive vibes aside, however, these events are often problematic.

In fact, to put it as bluntly as I can: I don’t believe these events take the lack of women in the tech industry seriously. They beat around the bush, failing to give actionable information and insight that women can use to enter the tech workforce, further their careers, be successful, and manage a work-life balance in such a demanding industry.

I’ve been to dozens of tech conferences, most of which are dominated by men. They all have a clear theme and are executed well, more or less. A workshop titled “how to sell cloud to government customers”, for example, will teach you exactly that, step by step. A workshop called “use cases for AI” will leave you with the knowledge of how to apply this emerging innovation in real-world scenarios.

But a workshop titled “how to get more women into tech?” Good luck explaining afterwards how the presenter said to encourage more women to enter IT.

Nor will a panel on “how to be successful as a woman in tech” teach anyone the steps to success.

Most of the women in tech events I’ve been to focus on the strengths women have – we’re compassionate or good communicators – and while those are important, they aren’t practical solutions. As a young woman, it’s great to hear about some of the strengths we share and how those make us good leaders, but soft skills only get me so far.

Being successful in tech requires much more than that.

Just like this piece, women in tech events all start with the same stats of how few women there are in the industry – and that’s great. It needs to be repeated over and over again until things change. But at the end of the day, I still walk away from these workshops empty-handed.

I want to hear tangible advice about how to get into the field, what courses in university I should take, or how to handle job interviews in a male-dominated field. When is appropriate to be more aggressive in interviews? With what questions can we be more forthright? Where is that line?

I have never received advice along these lines at a women in tech event – one recent workshop did come close thanks to an attentive audience asking poignant follow-up questions – but I believe they are words a large portion of women in the sector (or those preparing to join) need to hear.

It’s great to know that my womanly nurturing skills or natural compassion are assets, instead of hindrances, to business, like we’ve always been taught. Truly, some women may need to be told that to believe it, and that’s fine. But after being to so many of these events, I don’t want to only hear about soft skills anymore, I want to learn skills that will help me get a promotion. We don’t need to hear about how our emotions help us be strong leaders, we need to hear how to get into those positions in the first place.

I once was told at an event to “embrace my inner beauty.” It made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but I fail to see how knowing my inner self will help me get a job when most interviewers only care about my education and work experience, or what certifications I may have.

Even advice on how to respond to aggressive men in the workplace, how to be comfortable as the only female in an office, how to encourage upper management to hire other women without appearing biased, or how to deal with harassment without being seen as a “tattletale” or “buzzkill” need to be discussed.

Workplace harassment and aggressive masculinity are systemic social landmines that need to be eradicated, first and foremost, but they are also the unfortunate realities in today’s male-driven technology sector. In the meantime, while those landmines still exist, a woman needs to know how to step around them – or at least tackle them in a way that won’t end up with her being fired for telling HR that John Doe in DevOps aggressively came onto her at the staff Christmas party.

Hearing about how to handle these situations from women who have been there before would be incredibly useful for those of us facing the same issues.

And women aren’t the only ones who need to hear these things. Men are a large – much larger than these events ever seem to acknowledge – part of the problem too, and they need to be part of the solution. Those soft skills, such as compassion and good communication, which apparently come naturally for us, are important skills for men, too, and they should be told that.

Another common rhetoric at these events is to find a mentor or advocate who can help you along the journey. But don’t just tell me to find a mentor – how do I do that? What if I’m dealing with a female leader who is not an ally; who doesn’t necessarily want another woman to succeed at the same workplace?

These are all real scenarios and many women, especially young ones, don’t know how to navigate these waters. A lot of these questions can be answered through experience, but the technology industry in particular is intimidating and hard – and not just because it’s male-dominated. With so few women in it, those already established in tech should give young women a leg up in any way possible. Use these events to help the younger generations prepare themselves for the difficulties of the sector. Knowledge is power, as they say.

I may be alone in this, but I look forward to an interesting discussion. Share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Mandy Kovacs
Mandy Kovacs
Mandy is a lineup editor at CTV News. A former staffer at IT World Canada, she's now contributing as a part-time podcast host on Hashtag Trending. She is a Carleton University journalism graduate with extensive experience in the B2B market. When not writing about tech, you can find her active on Twitter following political news and sports, and preparing for her future as a cat lady.

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