by Christine Wong
I’ve asked myself the exact same question while departing various startup events here in Toronto over the past few months.
Where are all the women?
At one such event this past fall, only a handful of the hundred or so participants were female. At another, I spied one smartly dressed young woman near the front of the room and assumed she was one of the dozen startups there making pitches to a gathering of VCs and angels. When I introduced myself and asked which startup she was with, she smiled and said, “Oh no, I’m just here to watch my husband’s pitch.”
She was the only woman in the entire room besides me.
Of course there are prominent female success stories from the Canadian startup world like Sarah Prevette, founder of Sprouter, a social networking advice site for entrepreneurs. The Toronto firm shut down due to lack of funds before it was acquired for an undisclosed amount by Postmedia Network last fall.
Why aren’t there more Sarah Prevettes?
It’s a longstanding question with several theoretical answers.
One that may have held some water over a decade ago was that family demands put too much of a strain on young women. Who has the time, energy and financial resources to bootstrap the next Google or Zynga when you’re trying to keep a kid (or two) fed, happy and out of trouble, plus run a household, be supportive of a life partner and still carve out some semblance of a life beyond motherhood?
Since women today are waiting longer to get married and have kids, this scenario probably doesn’t play out very often among the twenty-somethings who dominate the startup community.
There’s always the education system to wag a finger of blame at. The numbers are pretty telling: according to a StatsCan study, 61 per cent of all Canadian university grads in 2007 were female, up from 56 per cent in 1992. But in that same span, the number of women graduating from university with a math, computer or information sciences degree actually dropped – the only field out of 12 (including law, education and health care) that saw female grad numbers go down.
Another study from the University of British Columbia found that women make up only 20 to 25 per cent of all computer science students at Canadian colleges and universities and only about one in five grads from those programs.
So even though today’s women have the same access to education as male students (we’ve come a long way since the Heritage Moment TV spot when Canada’s first female med student chews out her fellow guy students for covering up a model of the male reproductive system on her behalf), there still aren’t many women choosing to pursue tech degrees or front tech startups.
Timing probably plays a role. It’s obvious that if we want to get more women into the technology education stream, we have to pique their interest when they’re young girls. Heather Payne is hoping to do that with Ladies Learning Code, a non-profit group she founded last summer that holds workshops to teach coding to women in the Toronto area. Though LLC is for adult women, Payne wants to extend LLC’s reach by starting new programs aimed specifically at young girls as well.
I asked Payne – herself a founder of the LLC startup and a former member of the team at Toronto startup firm Pinpoint Social — for her own personal thoughts on why female participation in startups remains so low.
“There’s something about females that they’re generally less likely to toot their own horn, so they tend not to want to go to some of the startup events where that’s a big part of (what goes on),” Payne told me.
But she added this doesn’t mean women aren’t involved in startup activity and succeeding at it. Some women are just doing that in a low-key way, or doing it in non-tech industries that don’t grab big headlines like the tech startup space does, Payne suggested.
“Women are definitely in the Toronto startup scene whether they’re in tech or not. It’s happening, we just don’t hear about it in the same way (as male fronted startups),” Payne said.
Alyssa Richard offered me another view from the startup shop floor. She has founded two Toronto-based startups, mortgage rate comparison site RateHub.ca, and MyClosingCosts.ca, another site that calculates real estate closing costs.
“A lot of it might relate to a confidence thing,” she continued. “We as females are taught to be so modest, to not toot our own horns. I firmly believe there’s no place for arrogance (but) you need to be confident and just say if they (ie, men) can learn SEO, I can learn SEO, that kind of thing. It just takes time. It’s a risk-taking thing maybe too. Men are generally on average higher risk takers.”
Richard’s and Payne’s similar comments about female humility and modesty brought me back to almost 10 years ago when I was in the grips of a severe bout with depression due to a job that made me so miserable I couldn’t sleep. When weeks of warm milk, bad TV, countless books and a couple of over-the-counter sleeping pills failed, I found a job coach who specialized in helping women switch careers or re-enter the workforce.
“Close your eyes and answer this question instantly, without thinking about it,” she instructed me. “What do you want to be at work: well liked or well respected?”
“Well liked,” I answered immediately like Pavlov’s dog.
I was shocked at my response, unaware of how deeply I had internalized this preference for personal approval over professional accomplishment. Do any young women in Canada’s tech startup scene – or perhaps more tellingly, on the fringes of it — feel the same?
Let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear what you think about this.