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This piece concludes By Design, a Globe and Mail/OCAD University summer series highlighting design thinking, issues and innovation. Previously: Innovation agenda, urban agriculture, social or precarious economy, intelligent interfaces, misfit consumers.

Suzanne Stein is associate professor and director of the Super Ordinary Lab at OCAD University. Prateeksha Singh is a graduate research assistant at the lab.

The North American technology sector was founded on aspirational ideals and the heart-warming myth that eight visionary people walked out of America's semiconductor monopoly to protest its authoritative and abusive leadership. They founded new tech companies, including Intel, to embody a progressive spirit of leadership: innovation based on competition, experimentation and human-centric values in their products and within their corporate cultures. And this, goes the tale, was the birth of Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley continues to be characterized as an open sandbox of dreams and experimentation. The world's tech sector follows those cultural aspirations to be bold-visionary-ocracies. Yet Silicon Valley keeps many potential players out of the sandbox just because of who they are: women. This is particularly confounding given that (the undeniably female) Ada Lovelace wrote and published the first-ever computer program – in 1843.

What happened? Somehow, the ideals for more humane leadership morphed into something quite ugly.

At OCAD University, we set out to understand the gender imbalance of participation, and barriers to female leadership, in the Information Communication Technologies (ICT) sector. The benefit of being a design school is that we seek to bring a fresh and unexpected perspective, and this project was no different.

Initially, we assumed that the number of women employed in tech industries would be increasing, albeit slowly, given the fact that the CEO of IBM, the COO of Facebook and the CEO of Yahoo are women. But we found the reverse to be true: The number of women in tech is actually declining. It turns out that women's heyday in the sector was in the early 1980s, before the mass commercialization of personal computing. Then, 38 per cent of Canada's ICT work force was female; that was down to just 20 per cent by 2013.

One notorious example of hostility toward women is the video game industry. In 2014, "Gamergate" brought the industry's vicious misogyny to public attention through the widespread online harassment of several gaming-industry women. While gaming may be best known for misogynistic practices, it is by no means alone; we set it aside in our examination so that we could focus clearly on conditions in other parts of the sector.

Many studies point to rampant sexism and/or female exclusion across the entire ICT sector, identifying various sources of the problem: gender-based predilections regarding the arts and sciences, a lack of female mentorship and good-old garden-variety male chauvinism.

Our study brought together issues identified in education, employment, entrepreneurship and business financing. What we have here is what 1960s mathematician and design theorist Horst Rittel famously characterized as a "wicked problem." Prof. Rittel borrowed the term from philosopher Karl Popper to describe social problems that are poorly formulated, confusing and include many decision makers with conflicting values.

In this wicked problem, despite numerous insights and proposals for change brought forward by prior studies, little seemed to be changing. Even recent efforts within the sector to increase gender diversity (Intel is a vocal champion in this regard) have not reversed the trend toward female exclusion from positions of leadership, or sequestering into peripheral roles, such as in human resources or marketing.

Typically, design thinking considers several framings of a problem before any intervention or innovation is proposed or action is taken. To have a shot at effecting meaningful change in the tech industry, we examined it systematically and broadly – considering the current dismal state of affairs as well as the past and potential futures. This approach allowed us to hold several framings of the problem in view simultaneously.

Returning to the model we had synthesized from previous research – education, employment and business financing – we began with this life-stage question: In the career progression toward tech-sector leadership, where are women jumping or being pushed out?

Across the panorama of studies about this problem, gender stereotypes stand out as a common feature. That stereotyping of society at all levels seems to be at play, with gender segregation and sexism present in each stage of the model. We all know about the glass ceiling in corporate life, but we found that its support pillars extend down through career and entrepreneurial aspirations, all the way to early upbringing and education. It begins with rebuking little girls who assert their viewpoints and escalates to disregarding, silencing or humiliating female colleagues. At the model's higher stages, sexism and ageism fuel many women's exits from the corporate leadership for which they had long been paying the dues.

Gender norms are by no means new in society; stymieing female advancement in corporate life has a long history. We time-lined exclusion in business and society over the past century and looked at the current, complicated landscape (those trends that hold out promise for female leadership in tech and those that signal a further decline). Recent significant movements to include women, such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's historic shift to a representative cabinet, are worthy of optimism. However, counterinclusive movements give us cause for concern.

There is "broculture," a neologism that celebrates exclusively male environments. Then there is the deeply concerning trend of renewed threats to reproductive rights gains made by second-wave feminism (we're in the fourth wave now). A direct correlation has been established: The less right women have to control their own reproduction, the less likely they are to advance in corporate leadership. Lastly, studies on innovation show a worrying contradiction: While touting diversity as a precondition for successful innovation, they show that most innovation clusters are homogeneously male.

Through our layered vantage point, it became clear that some issues, and some solutions, are straightforward and superficial. Others are elusive and embedded in pervasive, underlying ideologies. There is no "just add women and stir" recipe. A hiring quota, for instance, can be set in place easily, but how does this sector emerge from a closed, hostile culture into an open and diverse one? Where and how might we, as researchers with an activist bent, intervene?

The OCAD University team has proposed six possible intervention points to get at the underlying myths and ideologies perpetuating the exclusion of women. For instance, we identified an opportunity to pry open tech's corporate culture by engaging organizations in play in order to consider their exclusion problem and self-generate new solutions.

We generated three game sets that allow participants to create a mix of strategic, tactical and cultural interventions within their organizations. The power of these games is in the rich discussions they spark. These guided conversations tap into players' personal experiences, with each hand of cards played, and scenario encountered, generating informed discourse, new realizations and suggested interventions.

The following games are at various stages of development:

  • Ceilings and Ladders, by Mithula Naik, is a playful engagement strategy promoting discussions about challenges facing female entrepreneurs. Players in government, financing institutions and business incubators can learn to rethink opening opportunities for women in the entrepreneurial space.
  • Fem-LED’s Grow-A-Game, by Emma Westecott and Paula Gardner with Suzanne Stein, is an expansion kit to Mary Flanagan’s Grow-a-Game deck. It’s a brainstorming tool that can help organizations develop their own supports and solutions to female exclusion. It lays out common challenges and asks players to match values with actions as a way to generate solutions for the various scenarios.
  • The Feminist Theorist Card Game, by the same three women, expands the card set, which depicts famous cultural theorists and artists as game-card characters (similar to Pokemon cards). This set includes prominent feminists and critical theorists, including technologist Lucy Suchman and writer bell hooks. The players, each in the persona of one of these diverse theorists, practise non-confrontational, generative and empathetic solution finding to given problems.

While workshopping the games with current sector leaders at an industry conference, participants were asked to consider: "How might we keep the door open for female leaders tomorrow?" Prof. Stein's young child, an honorary player, made this suggestion, summing up a solution to the whole wicked problem: "Make a bigger door."

"A bigger door" harks back to the origination myth of Silicon Valley. The tech sector continues to dream and to deliver previously unimagined industries, such as virtual reality and drones, along with new possibilities for our everyday lives. But dreams of more progressive, inclusive business practices faltered early.

Diversity and collaboration are often cited as partnered keys to meaningful innovation. Imagine first what Silicon Valley, and the entire tech sector, could create by redesigning their corporate cultures so that in the open sandbox, women and men play well together. Now imagine, given the pervasive impact of technology in our lives, the powerful legacy this newly progressive tech sector could have on forming a more hospitable, equitable and inclusive society.

It's time to dust off that original dream and make it so.

OCAD University's Fem-LED project was funded by the Ontario Media Development Corp.

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