Viet Vu is manager of economic research at The Dais at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“Because it’s 2015,” newly elected Justin Trudeau proclaimed in justifying the first gender-balanced cabinet in Canadian history. And rightly so – one of the most positive and dramatic shifts over the past half-century has been the rise of women in the workplace, where women comprise almost half of the Canadian work force. And yet, one type of work has been particularly impervious to this trend: tech. Twenty years ago, in 2001, 21 per cent of tech workers across Canada were women. Now, in 2023, the number has only increased to 24 per cent.
What’s surprising is not the fact that people aren’t talking about it. In fact, efforts to increase the participation of women in tech have been around for decades, and between 2010 and 2018 the number of women graduating with a STEM degree increased 50 per cent. Despite these efforts, little progress has been seen in the labour market. That disconnect should be surprising.
A common way many (often men) in tech have rationalized the dearth of women in tech is to lean in on the idea of “preferences” – maybe women just aren’t interested in pursuing technical careers, preferring more “emotional” work. I actually do think women consider preferences in choosing a career, but not because of any inherent gender differences. Women choose to not work in tech for practical reasons.
Imagine for a moment that you are considering two equally rewarding career paths. You know that if you choose the first one you’re going to be valued, paid appropriately and not have to deal with harassment. If you choose the other one, you know you’re going to be harassed, have your abilities doubted and have to struggle to get ahead. You’re obviously more likely to choose the path where you will be valued.
This is the exact “choice” many women who are thinking about a career in tech face. And these dynamics start early. A 2019 Statistics Canada study shows that more than 20 per cent of women who start a STEM degree switch to a non-STEM degree before graduating, a rate twice that of men. In fact, according to my calculations from the 2021 census, while almost 30 per cent of men who graduated with STEM degrees are now in a tech occupation, only 15 per cent of women with STEM degrees became tech workers.
In fact, the majority of women in one survey believed tech is unwelcoming in Canada. This problem also affects other quantitative fields. A recent paper shows that in economics (a STEM-adjacent field), those who anonymously posted misogynistic comments online (through the website EconJobMarketRumors) were members of elite universities, including Harvard and MIT. Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton all made the cut as cities with a high concentration of toxic posters.
So, yes, some women do choose to self-select out of working in tech. But that has nothing to do with their ability or a lack of interest.
Many programs designed to encourage women to participate in tech focus on women themselves – teaching them to code better or negotiate better. To be clear, there is a place for such programs, but such focus does nothing to solve the core issue of the toxic environment in tech.
To understand the problem, we need to not only focus on why women choose different paths but also the toxic culture most often perpetuated by men that drives women away. There are signs that men do not feel that gender bias is an issue in tech. That needs to change.
As governments of all levels and political stripes, as well as businesses, have highlighted, we desperately need tech workers who will propel the Canadian economy. The federal government, with the support of the provinces, has introduced a dizzying array of immigration programs to attract tech talent to Canada. In that quest for talent, we cannot afford to look away from the realities that keep hundreds of thousands of women away from tech.