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It was a telling moment for Jodi Kovitz when she went to a youth summit to talk about a severe shortage of women in advanced technology − and found that the girls were out in force, conversing easily and confidently with their male peers on such topics as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and genetic engineering.

Of the 300 participants, all in the 13-to-17 age range, 40 per cent were female. Invitations to the youth tech summit, organized by The Knowledge Society (TKS), were based solely on “intellectual curiosity and a hunger for knowledge,” tech entrepreneur Navid Nathoo said. The sheer number of female applicants contradicted a commonly held notion that girls are not all that interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), said Mr. Nathoo, who co-founded TKS with his brother Nadeem, a former consultant with McKinsey and Co.

The way to get more women into STEM is to catch them young and encourage them, alongside the talented boys, before they self-select out, Nadeem Nathoo says.

JEREMIE DUPONT/The Knowledge Society.

“I was blown away by those brilliant and curious young people” and encouraged by the number of young women in the room, said Ms. Kovitz, chief executive officer of #movethedial, a organization she founded two years ago to increase the participation and advancement of girls and women in technology. “I think this generation is starting to see a different way [of doing things].”

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In partnership with McKinsey, The Knowledge Society, a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization, also runs an eight-month program on weekends to train the next generation of innovators and leaders in the tech sector. The current cohort of 120 includes 17-year-olds Tanisha Bassan, a quantum-computing enthusiast, and Hannah Le, who is studying the potential of advanced technology to accelerate research into more effective treatment of diseases.

In a 2017 benchmark study − co-authored with PwC Canada and innovation hub MaRS Discovery District − #movethedial reported that only 5 per cent of Canadian tech companies have a female founder or chief executive officer, that women represent only 13 per cent of the average tech company’s executive team and that, on average, only 8 per cent of tech company directors are women.

“The labour market is increasingly demanding higher skill levels in science, technology, engineering and math,” the TD economics group said in a study released in the fall of 2017. Still, “women make up less than one-quarter of employment in these occupations.”

The key is to catch them young and encourage them, alongside the talented boys, before they self-select out, Nadeem Nathoo said.

At the recent TKS summit in Toronto, senior leaders − male and female − from NASA, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Tesla and Toronto-based virtual-reality/augmented-reality specialist MetaVRse − talked about the rapid pace of change and discovery in neuroscience, space engineering, data science, blockchain and virtual reality. Stay curious, keep exploring and contact us if you hit a roadblock, they told their young audience.

“TKS is a very unique environment … where gender, age, ethnicity, etcetera are factors that mean absolutely nothing. Everyone is here because we share a similar mindset of curiosity and goals for changing the world,” said Ms. Bassan, who will start her final year of high school in the fall.

Efforts to attract more bright young women to STEM are starting to pay off, Ms. Kovitz said, but there is still a lot of work to be done. The University of Waterloo reports that, in the 2017-18 academic year, women accounted for more than 24 per cent of the students admitted to computer-science programs in the faculty of mathematics − up from 10 per cent a decade ago.

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Within the workforce, “employers need to review whether ongoing marginalization is present,” TD said in its report, Women in STEM, Bridging the Divide. “Women who acquire a degree in STEM are disproportionately slotted into lower-paying technical roles …

“Firms that argue there’s insufficient supply of women need to first ensure the elimination of attitudes that … cause women to either self-select out of the STEM workforce or shift involuntarily into part-time ranks. To have run the gauntlet through a 20-year educational journey, only to experience a fatal career blow due to corporate culture is a loss to society and the economy.”

Attitudes are shifting at the top, Ms. Kovitz said. “I see it even from the phone calls I get from people saying, ‘Jodi, you have a great network. Can you help me source a board member? Can you help me source a female lead engineer?’”

It will require the collective efforts of men and women to create more inclusive work environments, said Ms. Bassan, who is undeterred by the gender imbalance in her field.

She has chosen to pursue quantum computing out of a passion for the technology and its potential impact on the future. “Many times I have been in a room where most people were men and much older than me, however I did not let any of these factors get in my way of pursuing knowledge. If more girls can gain this mindset, then I believe we will see a change in the numbers very soon.”

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