With your long-time engagement in fostering diversity and inclusion, what is your sense of what has been achieved?
I began working to advance the representation of women in tech almost three decades ago. While there has been a massive and well-intentioned effort to increase the percentage of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the fact is that we now have fewer women in computer science and only marginally more in engineering than we did 30 years ago. There is bias embedded throughout the research and innovation ecosystem. And unfortunately, there is not a lot of evidence that there are generational differences. When you look at tech startups and incubators, for example, “bro culture” is still pervasive. In general, there are real challenges with small and medium enterprises in terms of diversity and inclusion practices. We need an evidence-based intentional strategy to drive system change.
Please tell us about your efforts to boost the representation of women in entrepreneurship.
Research has shown that diverse teams – and the inclusion of women – can lead to more innovation and robust solutions, but there has been a gap between the evidence and what we see in policy and practice. We are working to address this with the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH), which is part of the federal government’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (WES), an ambitious plan that aims to double the number of women entrepreneurs by 2025.
How can this goal be accomplished?
As a whole-of-government approach to helping women grow their businesses through access to financing, talent, networks and expertise, WES recognizes that work is needed at many levels and to cross silos. WEKH is a foundational piece of the strategy, a platform to promote sharing research and best practices, linking organizations that support women entrepreneurs and driving change through the innovation ecosystem.
Why is research an important part of the strategy?
[Gender bias] is deeply embedded in our society. We need an evidence-based approach and to understand the levers that will drive systems change. Research can help to identify barriers and opportunities, tackle the stereotypes and help inform a co-ordinated national strategy to create a more inclusive innovation ecosystem.
What are some of the barriers women entrepreneurs face?
The first barrier is the stereotype of whom we see as an entrepreneur. If you ask people to name three entrepreneurs, they typically come up with a combination of Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. While entrepreneurship is really a broad concept that involves challenging the status quo or creating something new and covers a wide spectrum of activities, it has become strongly associated with men and technology. This not only shapes the programs and policies but also the aspirations of women because “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” Women are under-represented in tech and among tech entrepreneurs generally; they are more likely to be found in services industries, arts and social enterprises, but these sectors tend to be overlooked.
When we look at organizations supporting entrepreneurs, from financial institutions, venture capitalists, incubators and service providers to educational institutions, research shows there are often biases built into their processes that affect what they value and whom they support. But the problem is complex. We know women often have different expectations and attitudes to financing, growth and exporting. That is why we need an integrated strategy, which considers these complex interactions.
How can this be addressed?
On one hand, we can encourage women to see the range of opportunities, to be more ambitious, to grow and expand their business internationally, and to seek financing to realize these goals. But at the same time, we have to understand that women may have different motivations and to meet them where they are. That’s why we need a dual perspective. Rather than saying women entrepreneurs must be more like men, we want to remove the barriers for those who want to aspire to grow and expand. We also have to recognize this is not the only pathway to success.
Entrepreneurship can take many forms, and when you consider racialized women, immigrant women, Indigenous women, women with disabilities and others, it adds to the level of complexity. Women in rural areas have different needs, challenges and aspirations than women in cities. Better understanding the amazing work entrepreneurs do in wildly different contexts is part of what makes this project so exciting.
How can this complexity be reflected in one strategy?
The strategy has to take the incredible diversity of women entrepreneurs into account and have the goal to increase opportunity and support regardless of where the women are and what they aspire to. At the same time, we want to make sure their goals are not constrained because of the barriers they face.
This is part of the reason that the WEKH has engaged with a very diverse set of organizations – including women’s entrepreneurship organizations, but also financial institutions, chambers of commerce, incubators, Indigenous organizations and community groups as well as universities. Our hubs recognize the importance of responding to regional diversity and connecting with organizations on the ground. We also have thematic leads for different sectors, where we can support women in tech at the same time as refugee women and artists.
What inspires optimism that the 2025 goal can be reached?
For me, it is encouraging when the champions supporting women’s entrepreneurship are not just organizations that have “women” in the title. Beyond resources being devoted to women-focused funds and efforts, it inspires me to see larger organizations opening up to being more inclusive. For example, they are prepared to look at their policies, funding, outreach and procurement strategies, and think about how they design and market products and services. This will leverage and amplify the investments by the government in the WES by providing access to the massive investments across the ecosystem.
[Being inclusive] is understood to link to our economic growth, social development and global competitiveness more today than ever before. And from talking to my counterparts in other parts of the world, I know that Canada is well positioned to lead internationally.
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s Editorial Department was not involved in its creation.