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With tech giants like Google going after female talent, how can startups compete? Add to ...

The software industry is notorious for being male-dominated, but as large tech companies look to fix the problem by increasing the number of women in their work forces, some say it’s making it harder for startups to retain female staff.

Ray Sharma, the founder of Extreme Venture Partners, a Toronto-based venture capital fund, says he has seen it first-hand at one of the startups in which he has invested. Shortly after Google announced a $150-million initiative to recruit more women, an employee was offered a job at the tech giant. It paid twice her previous salary.

“It’s a really interesting situation because you know that there’s good intentions,” Mr. Sharma says. “But when you take a developer from a startup, are you really benefiting the the ecosystem?”

He says he worries that instead of leading to an overall increase in the number of women working in tech, large companies are just trying to buy their way out of their own diversity problems at the expense of smaller businesses.

Tech giants like Google and Facebook have come under heavy criticism for their lack of diversity.

At Google, women make up 30 per cent of the company’s global work force, and at Facebook it’s 32 per cent. But many of those women aren’t developing software for those companies but instead are working in support roles.

Women at Google hold 18 per cent of tech jobs and 22 per cent of management positions, according to data gathered by the company last January. Those numbers show a one-percentage-point increase in female representation from the previous year – the first time Google released demographic data – in both of those categories.

The numbers are almost identical at Facebook, where 16 per cent of tech workers and 23 per cent of the senior leadership are women.

Women aren’t the only underrepresented group. Among Google employees in the United States – the only region for which the company discloses data about ethnicity – 60 per cent are white and 31 per cent are Asian. Only 2 per cent are black.

Both companies have said they’re committed to increasing diversity and that they’ve started releasing this sort of data as part of an effort to solve the problem.

Google says it has begun looking for talent at a broader range of universities, and is supporting programs intended to get more girls and women into tech. But change is coming slowly. On June 1, the company said 21 per cent of its tech hires in the previous year were women – an increase from previous years but not a large one.

In Canada, about 25 per cent of workers in information and communications technology jobs are women, according to data from the Information and Communications Technology Council, a federally funded non-profit.

That’s comparable to the overall percentage in the United States.

Mr. Sharma says diversity – in all its forms – is important because of the additional perspectives it provides.

“I think that you would agree that software now is the basis of every industry,” he says. “Therefore, we need women to put their influence into software engineering. It’s important for society – it’s not just important for them, it’s important for everybody.”

Briana Sim, the co-founder and chief operating officer of Radical I/O Technology, a Vancouver-based software development startup, says that while larger companies haven’t tried to recruit any of the women who work for her, she is worried it will happen in the future.

Ms. Sim has made recruiting women a priority. Job ads posted by her company specifically encourage women and members of other groups that are underrepresented in the tech industry to apply.

Still, her work force isn’t quite as diverse as she would like.

“Very few females apply. Definitely, I see the gender imbalance there,” she says. “It’s more difficult to find. Part of that has to be that there aren’t enough women developers in the pipeline.”

That’s not the only challenge when it comes to hiring.

“The women devs that I’ve seen who are good, they’re all employed already,” she says.

Ms. Sim’s strategy for recruiting female talent in a competitive environment is based on building relationships with other women working in the field. That way, when she has an opening or someone in her network is looking for a new job, she can make an offer that is tailored to the individual she wants to hire.

Sometimes that means offering flexible hours, the ability to work from home or career development opportunities. Other times, though, it comes down to paying a little bit more – something she says she is willing to do.

“If I have to make less profit, if I have to spend more time making relationships,” she says, “I think it does come back in the end.”

Retaining female employees often comes down to corporate culture, says Elizabeth Ames, senior vice-president of marketing, alliances and programs at the Anita Borg Institute, an organization based in Palo Alto, Calif., that supports women in technology.

Because tech companies are so male-dominated, Ms. Ames says, that often ends up being reflected in their corporate cultures. As a result, little things can add up, leaving female employees feeling as though they “don’t exist or count,” she says.

The potential for advancement can also be a major factor when it comes to retaining women, Ms. Ames says. If a company’s management is male-dominated, or all-male, it sends a message to women that they won’t have the chance to move up.

“Women at senior and executive levels serve as beacons to other women,” she says. “They become visible symbols of the ability for women to succeed at the company.”

Ms. Ames says these factors aren’t just leading women to switch from one tech company to another; they’re pushing women to leave the tech industry altogether.

“Women do leave the industry at twice the rate that men do,” she says. “There’s a lot of focus on increasing the number of women studying computer science, but I would contend that if we could just keep the women that we have, we would be in a lot better shape.”

Not everyone sees it that way, though.

Ms. Sim and Mr. Sharma believe that solving tech’s gender imbalance starts by getting more women into the field, and they think that has to start at a young age. Both of them are involved in programs intended to get middle-school girls interested in building software.

But Ms. Ames says part of the problem might be that companies define qualified women too narrowly.

She says many tech companies will hire men who don’t have computer science degrees for technical positions, while at the same time blaming their lack of diversity on the low number of women graduating from computer science programs.

Still, Ms. Ames says, programs like those set up by Facebook and Google are a good thing.

“The truth of the matter is there aren’t enough people graduating with computer science degrees, period, men or women,” she says.

“All of this can’t hurt. Do I think that sometimes they’re competing for the same women? Yes, I do think that sometimes they’re competing for the same women,” she says.

Kelly Lyons, a professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of information, who worked at IBM from 1994 to 2007 and held senior technical roles, says having more women at an organization will help attract other women.

“It will hopefully attract more, but also help people move around – and moving around is not a bad thing,” she says. “But I think we still need to somehow solve the problem of supply. We have to figure out how to get more young women excited about this and seeing themselves there.”

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