“I could be successful in any field I chose.” – advice from 23 women in tech

In honour of International Women’s Day, CDN decided to reach out to some of Canada’s leading women in tech, asking how their respective companies will be marking International Women’s Day, what they feel is one of the most challenging situations they have faced in the industry, what advice they have for other women entering the field, and which other female leaders they admire.

“I think as women we need to support and recognize each other more,” Microsoft Canada president Janet Kennedy told us. “There are so many women doing amazing things – I only wish we had enough space in your story to recognize all of them.”

Read on for answers from not only Kennedy, but HP Canada’s Mary Ann Yule, eBay Canada’s Andrea Stairs, Cisco Canada’s Bernadette Wightman, Intel Canada’s Elaine Mah, and more.

(Our deepest thanks to the Information Technology Association of Canada for arranging so many of these interviews!)

Seema Lakhani, Head of Core Product, Wattpad

“Something I’ve seen in the industry that really bothers me is the idea that to be successful you need to behave somehow differently than your nature – that if you’re in a male-dominated environment, you need to change your behaviour to emulate the characteristics of those who are already successful. While this approach can work for some, it is to the detriment of women overall and even more so, bad for business and industry. Businesses benefit from diversity. We don’t need more of the same. The approach of putting it all on the individual also removes our collective responsibility as leaders and influencers to step up and make tech a more welcoming and inclusive place. The myth of meritocracy still lives in parts of our industry and we need to educate that away.”

“Be true to yourself! Technology is a creative pursuit by nature. It’s about building something valuable that serves a real need or solves a real problem. We as women live and breathe navigating complex situations and solving hard problems. We care. It’s so important to care. For anyone who cares deeply – that is your strength, not a weakness.”

Sara Jost, Global Healthcare Industry Lead, BlackBerry

“My career hasn’t followed a regular trajectory, so coming into tech was a huge mind-shift. I’m a nurse and worked in high risk labour and delivery before venturing into technology… so I went from a predominantly female profession to a predominantly male business. The challenges are different, but I also feel that coming into one’s own in a career is a learning process, regardless of the industry. I think there is a balance between trusting your instincts and being technically certain. One of my biggest challenges is to speak up. I find it hard to trust my knowledge and give an opinion or a solution.”

“I think it has helped me to have a Registered Nurse designation in the tech field. Having something that distinguishes oneself makes it easier to find your niche.”

Mary Ann Yule, President and CEO at HP Canada Co.

“I was raised by parents who immigrated to Canada, and they truly believed in Canada and the opportunities it could provide. Despite our traditional home, I never saw gender as an obstacle in the workplace. I only saw the potential opportunities hard work and delivering results could achieve for a career. However, one of the biggest challenges for me was the lack of female role models in senior executive positions. There were almost none while I was starting out in the industry. I attribute work ethic and the values instilled in me from my upbringing as critical to my career success. Also, I made it a goal to model myself after male leaders I respected, but putting my own female twist on things.”

“For women who feel their company is not headed in the right direction on diversity and inclusion, my advice is to find a few like-minded colleagues and get together with others to start building it into your company culture. It might first start within your immediate team before branching out into other areas, but it can be done. Every organization needs vocal and active diversity champions across all levels of the business to take advantage of opportunities for positive change.”

Heather Payne, CEO, HackerYou

“To be honest, every day at HackerYou is International Women’s Day. We’ve created an environment and culture at HackerYou where diversity is truly valued, and where everyone is equal. Now we just need the rest of the tech industry to catch on.”

“I spent a lot of time early in my career “acting as if” I totally belonged. I think it helped me to integrate more easily into the industry.”

Lisa Purdy, Partner and National Leader, Health Services, Deloitte

“Don’t rule out tech as a career, even though it is currently male-dominated… Currently, 30 per cent of [Deloitte’s] technology consulting team are female, and we are constantly striving to recruit more female talent in that area… We believe that women bring a unique perspective as well as diversity of thought to technology planning and delivery – and we celebrate this diversity through our Women in Technology group, which helps to feature female role models and connect women with male leaders for sponsorship and mentorship opportunities.”

Suki Hughes, Partner, Consulting, Deloitte

“My mother went to the University of Toronto at the age of 15 to take math in an era that had little awareness of women’s status in STEM fields. I was always inspired by this and believed that I could be successful in any field I chose.”

Susanne M. Flett, President, Healthtech Consultants

“Early in my career I encountered the ‘glass ceiling,’ which was one of the reasons that I started my own business!”

Nicole Wengle, Vice President and Country Manager, F5 Networks

“[One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a woman in tech was] having children while building my career: Finding the right balance for me, and feeling secure in having a different schedule than my colleagues. [My advice for other women pursuing careers in tech is to] take advantage of the fact that we stand out. Be confident and ambitious. Trust your instincts and speak your mind. If you’re no longer feeling stretched in your role, it may be time for that next job.”

“[A woman I admire is] Huda Idrees, an inspiring 26 year old Canadian tech entrepreneur. After several successful tech companies, she is now focused on developing a solution that provides low cost electronic health records directly to patients. An immigrant from Saudi Arabia, and now a young female in tech, her perseverance in the face of adversity gives her an edge. Let’s fund more female founders.”

Huda Idrees, Founder and CEO, DotHealth

“It’s not a singular challenge, but more like a series of challenges being a woman in technology. The crux of it all is the extra amount of labour required from me to get to the same level as my male counterparts. I not only have to be competent, I have to be significantly better than my male colleagues. It’s emotionally draining. [My advice for other women pursuing careers in tech is to] lift each other up! Pay attention to power structures in every meeting or conversation. Give people with less power than you the platform to speak up. The only way we can chip away at this systemic problem is through a concerted community effort.”

Andrea Stairs, Managing Director, eBay Canada

“The tech sector is like any other major industry: It’s got challenges and bright spots in terms of gender equity. To be successful, women in tech — like women in business everywhere — need to be in the driver’s seat of their own careers. I’ve found that enlisting sponsors — senior level men and women willing to advocate on your behalf — is a critical factor in ensuring that women are considered and awarded new assignments and roles.”

“What other women do you admire? I am privileged to be a part of a group of female leaders who run e-commerce companies in Canada (Well.ca, Etsy, eBates, Brika and, of course, eBay). I have tremendous respect for these female leaders, and though we all compete in the online space, we also share in an unofficial community of support that is positive and inspiring.”

Kirsten Sutton, Managing Director, SAP Canada Labs

“The challenges for me are the same as for any tech employee – keeping up with the rapid change in technology. We are all faced with an endless learning curve that can be intimidating and exhausting. In order to keep up with technology, you need to be realistic about your skills, and your time. Much more importantly, you should always focus on your strengths.”

“Every woman should consider a career in tech. A career in tech affords many advantages: flexible working hours, technologies that allow for better work/life balance, salaries and benefit packages are generous and the toys are fun to play with. And technology is ubiquitous, so you can find a role in a tech company that suits your passion – from wine production, to organic farming, security defense systems, gaming, fashion, movie making… the list is endless.”

Leagh Turner, COO, Strategic Customer Programs, SAP SE

“I think the biggest challenge for women in technology is also the biggest opportunity – and that’s that we’re outnumbered! STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has been, and continues in large part to be, a field that’s pretty male dominated. The beauty of that is as the pace of change accelerates, and diversity of thought matters more, organizations are reaching for different thinking – and inherently, we’ve got it. The next hurdle is having the confidence to use it! … ‘Tech’ can sound intimidating. In reality it is quite the opposite – it’s breaking new ground every day, it’s finding answers to questions that haven’t been solved, and so therefore it’s more about curiosity and discovery than it is about ‘getting things right.’ If you have a curious mind, you like to be at the epicenter of an ever-changing world, and you love the idea of helping people and businesses accelerate through change, then technology is the place to be.”

Nancy Briglio, Director of Commercial business, IBM Canada

“The rate and pace of change is staggering in the tech industry; therefore we must continue to invest in our own skills and capabilities to be relevant to our clients. Like so many women in leadership positions, we are balancing family, a career and our personal passions. Probably the biggest challenge is how to find more time, and getting all the things done that we are truly passionate about, which means we sometimes need to say ‘no.’ That’s very hard to do.”

“There has never been a better time to be in the technology industry. Technology is transforming and disrupting industries and creating the path for new business models. Seize the opportunity by moving with speed, embracing change and thinking boldly. Secondly, learn to be a developer…this is where the action is happening so roll up your sleeves and play!”

Krista Shibata, Leader, Women in Technology Initiative, IBM Canada

[One of the biggest challenges of being a woman in tech] is dealing with people who do not take women seriously or as people whose ideas and input and decisions are equally valid… Women belong in tech! Stay true to your goals and dreams and find a mentor you can trust and learn from.”

Sarah Kwan, president of Lean In Canada

“I think one of the biggest challenges [I’ve faced] is under-representation. It’s not uncommon to be the only woman, or one of the few women, in the room when it comes to tech and startups, and that means it can be difficult to call out instances of bias or unfairness, if no one else is able to see or experience the same thing and back you up. My situation is a bit different, since our organization is all about providing women with access to a supportive network and helping companies create environments of equal opportunity, and one of the aims of our work is to get more women into these male-dominated environments. We all benefit from having more diversity at the table.”

“[My advice for other women pursuing careers in tech is to] definitely choose your workplace carefully – find the bosses and teams that will enable you to take charge of your growth, and that have positive and productive working environments. Build your network and a support system outside of your workplace as well, whether it’s mentors, friends, or peers in the industry.”

Paula Hucko (centre), President, Gold Care

“Our organization has always been very supportive of women in tech; however, I have seen examples in other environments where the assumption is made that women aren’t tech-savvy. In the past I have run teams of woman in all areas – development, services, and sales. One year while at Dun and Bradstreet my team was one of the top performing international sales groups – and it was ALL WOMEN! … I think we all need to punch above our weight in all that we do, and while punching have some fun. The power of whimsy cannot be overestimated.”

“I know it sounds trite but my single best role model and the woman I admired most is my mother. She always encouraged us to do what makes you happy and fulfilled and the rest will come. In university I would regularly get old-fashioned mail from her with clippings, articles and inspirational sayings. I still have all of her letters and even the carefully-clipped-out sayings.”

Angela Brown, President & CEO, Moneris Solutions

“Plan to spend the early part of your career acquiring as many of the skills and experiences you will need to be a leader with breadth as well as depth. That means while you may want to focus on becoming an expert in a certain technical area, don’t miss the chance to take on assignments that allow you to also cultivate your communication, presentation, organizational, leadership and business skills. You will need all these capabilities along with technical capability to have an interesting, rewarding career. And never stop developing new skills and looking for opportunities to put them to use. Over time, it all adds up!”

Bernadette Wightman, President, Cisco Canada

“First: Find a mentor. Find someone who can help you make connections, build your skills, be a sounding board, and expand your personal perspective. Second: Get out there. Read, learn about the industry, go to events, participate on social media, and make connections. Third: Build highly diverse teams. Women are great team builders and great things can happen when you bring divergent people and opinions together. Fourth: Be courageous. Sometime it’s hard to speak-up and take a risk. Find your courage, participate, and take action. Finally: Inspire others! 50 per cent of the population is not a minority. Let’s be an inspiration to the next generation of girls and young women, and empower them to be all they can and want to be.”

Elaine Mah, Director, Intel Canada Ltd.

“Mentors and strong role models – both male and female – have played a large part in shaping my career, and not just for the purposes of networking or advancement. You need to be mindful of work styles and management styles that you can aspire to, and that you can in turn pass on to those coming up behind you. Working at Intel has provided me with some amazing mentors and role models – Diane Bryant, Genevieve Bell, and Doug Cooper to name a few. It’s an interesting time to be working in the tech sector as greater focus and attention is directed towards diversity and inclusion… It’s been proven time and again that diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences contribute to greater innovation, which creates an ideal environment for tackling the challenges of the future.”

Lisa Carroll, Senior Vice President, National Capital Region, CGI

[One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a woman in tech is that] I am often the only woman at a business table and I realize that my presence sometimes makes others uncomfortable. As a result, I’ve recognized that I have extra work to put others at ease before my ideas and advice can be listened to. [My advice for other women pursuing careers in tech is to] be yourself, and don’t be intimidated if you are the only female at a table. You don’t need to emulate male behavior to succeed – authenticity and diversity in the workforce creates a stronger company and better solutions to problems. Protect and foster diversity so that we can all be better as a whole.”

Kate Arthur, Director and Founder, Kids Code Jeunesse

“I’ve been really lucky in tech. I’ve never worked for anyone throughout my tech career – I’ve always been my own boss. For women who are entering the field, I would recommend (as I would in any field): Stay true to your beliefs and don’t change yourself to fit in a company.”

Janet Kennedy, President, Microsoft Canada

“While I feel very fortunate about my career journey and the opportunities I have had over the years, I think the biggest challenge was in my earlier years and breaking the stereotype of the direction I wanted to take. I remember that at one point I was branded as someone who had a family and therefore would not want to move or take on a bigger job. And that was absolutely not the case.”

“In answer to your question around advice for other women making their careers in tech, I would say a few things – ask for what you want, ensure you have a strong support network around you who understand the direction you want to take and then go for it! There is an incredible amount of opportunity in technology and I can honestly say I love my job and the people I get to work with every day!”

Melissa Sariffodeen, CEO, Ladies Learning Code

“Every day is International Women’s Day at Ladies Learning Code. Through our work exposing tens of thousands of Canadian women and girls I have come to better understand the extraordinary economic, intellectual, and social power that women represent so we’re excited to celebrate today with the announcement of several partnerships with organizations who are helping us amplify the work we do all-year-round to expose, educate and inspire Canadian women and girls to harness the power of technology. I’m constantly inspired by the women (and men) in our community.”

“As a female-founded and led organization we’re fortunate to have so many strong and inspiring women from such diverse backgrounds who’ve all come together to support our mission to educate, empower and inspire. We’ll be highlighting them all today on Twitter!”

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former IT World Canada associate editor turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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