Alex Reid’s post on Monday about the economic necessity of supporting investment in more women-led startups is all the more timely as it comes the same week that we cheer the release of Startup Canada’s Action Plan to drive economic development, job creation and innovation coast to coast.
During its 40-city Canadian tour over the past year, Startup Canada confirmed what those of us involved with the startup community already know:
- Canadians in general are hyper-rational and risk averse, and view entrepreneurship with disbelief, mistrust and apathy.
- Young people are often unaware of what it means to be an entrepreneur, and are not educated in the basics of what it takes to launch and grow a business.
- Young people are often dissuaded by parents, school guidance counsellors and other influencers from pursuing entrepreneurship as a career path.
But these hurdles are even more acute when we look at the lot of young women with an entrepreneurial spark. Add into the mix the gender bias they face if they have an interest in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) and it’s a wonder there are any noteworthy women-led technology startups at all. But what’s troubling is that, like the broader issues hampering entrepreneurial accomplishment in Canada, the challenges facing women persist despite frequent warnings about the economic consequences and calls to action over the past two decades.
Alex quoted in her post Dr. Cindy Gordon, a startup founder and former VC who also co-founded Maple Leaf Angels, directed the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and chaired CanWit. Gordon noted that 52 percent of highly qualified females working in STEM will quit their jobs within the first 10 years of their careers. The issue begins in the public school system, where stereotypes persist that impact academic performance and erode career aspirations in science and math.
Several years ago, I cowrote a paper for Engineers Canada that explored the very same issues and charted the negative contributing factors as they exist in the public school system, the post-secondary environment and in the workplace across North America. Much of the data and many of the research reports I referenced in that paper could be considered dated now if not for the fact that the issues they raise remain and the fundamental economic arguments for effecting change in how our culture regards women entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists are just as valid today.
One of those reports came from the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology in November 2009. Titled “Increasing Women in SETT: The Business Case,” it concluded that:
“Over the period 2008 to 2015, Canadian employers will need to recruit around 126,400 to 178,800 ICT workers, an average of 15,795 to 22,345 per year, with the supply of domestic graduates meeting only 49 percent to 70 percent of net hiring requirements.”
But this isn’t just a supply and demand issue related labour, it is a competitive need that is repeatedly illustrated by reams of research into the benefits of having diverse teams, with gender being the most obvious way to bring diverse perspectives into the corner office and the board room.
In its May 2009 report, “Groundbreakers: Using the Strength of Women to Rebuild the World Economy,”Ernst & Young reiterated what numerous studies have previously concluded: “diverse groups of people tend to outperform homogeneous groups if both groups’ members have equal abilities. Perhaps more surprisingly, there is now research showing that under the right conditions, a group of intelligent problem solvers chosen completely at random will likely outperform a homogeneous group of even the best problem solvers.”
A story published in January 2010 by Canadian Business Magazine, “Winners & Losers 2010: Big Winner – Women,” quoted Michel Ferrary, a professor of management at France’s Ceram Business School, who in 2009 made headlines when he published research findings that illustrated that the French companies which had best weathered the global financial crisis up until that point were the ones with the largest proportion of female managers.
I could go on here ad nauseam. But that’s the problem – there’s been plenty of talk and too little meaningful action on a scale that has some chance of achieving the necessary cultural change. That paper for Engineers Canada also cites a number of noteworthy programs undertaken across Canada at the local and regional levels to attract and support more young women in STEM and entrepreneurship. But these are pebbles rolling down the mountain side when what we need is one God Almighty rock slide.
The new investment program for women-led startups from Maple Leaf Angels and Canadian Women in Technology that Alex talked about in her post earlier this week is another step in the right direction. Startup Canada is doing its part to build a cohesive, inclusive and collaborative national strategy that reaches from the highest levels of government and corporate Canada to the most local of communities. But the onus still rests with parents, family, guidance counsellors and others who have the most influence on young people to police themselves against perpetuating outdated stereotypes and biases based on gender.
If it’s acceptable for Jack to be an entrepreneur, an engineer or a scientist, then it most certainly is for Jill, too.
Leo Valiquette is a consultant at Francis Moran and Associates.
Francis Moran and Associates is an associated team of seasoned practitioners of a number of different marketing disciplines, all of whom share a passion for technology and a proven record of driving revenue growth in markets across the globe. We work with B2B technology companies of all sizes and at every life stage and can engage as individuals or as a full team to provide quick counsel, a complete marketing strategy or the ongoing hands-on input of a virtual chief marketing officer.