Gender gap shows high-tech sector still stuck in the past — and it could prove costly

A new report about Canada's tech sector shines a light on who works in the digital economy. The good news is there are lots of jobs for skilled workers. The bad news? It's still an uphill battle getting women into the tech workforce.

Report says women represent only one quarter of high-tech workforce in Canada

There's plenty of evidence that gender diversity in the workplace is good for business. So why are women still so under-represented in the tech sector? (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

A new report about Canada's tech sector shines a light on who works in the digital economy. The good news is there are lots of jobs for skilled workers. The bad news? It's still an uphill battle getting women into the tech workforce.

Produced by the Ottawa-based Information and Communications Technology Council, with support from Microsoft, the report explores the opportunities and challenges in Canada's rapidly changing economic landscape.

What's clear is that all sectors of the economy are in need of digitally skilled talent.

The report confirms what most Canadians likely understand intuitively based on their increasingly connected lives: that in this day and age, technology is no longer relegated only to the tech sector. In fact, the majority of information and communications technology (ICT) workers don't actually work for high-tech companies as such, but for companies in other sectors such as manufacturing, trade, culture and finance.

According to the report, employment in the larger digital economy grew by five per cent between 2016 and 2017 — the largest increase in a decade.

Where are the women? 

But despite ample opportunities, the report says women represent only a quarter of the ICT workforce, even though they represent half of the overall Canadian workforce.

The ratio of men to women in tech has been stagnant for the past decade.

And the disparity only gets worse the higher up the corporate ladder you look. According to Women in Communications and Technology (WCT), a national organization dedicated to the advancement of women in the workforce, among the top 100 tech firms in Canada, there are five female CEOs and one co-CEO.

The group says women are also under-represented in the senior leadership teams of these companies — 26 of them "have no women in the C-suite at all."

The gender wage gap also remains an issue in the tech sector. The average annual salary difference between men and women was more than $7,000 in 2016. 

The workplace culture at high-tech companies like Google and Uber has come under scrutiny recently, particularly as it relates to the under-representation of women in the industry. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

While the ICTC report doesn't include research to explain why so few women work in tech, the industry's reputation for perpetuating a toxic "bro" culture has been covered extensively in other studies, not to mention in news reports about the inner workings at Silicon Valley venture capital firms, Google and Uber.

The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report found progress toward gender equality in tech actually took a step backwards last year. For the first time since the employment study was started back in 2006, the percentage of women working in software and technology development shifted "into reverse."

In a recent essay on the topic, CEO Gillian Tans says "among the many reasons" to take the problem seriously is this simple fact: "Employing women is good for business." 

Diversity is key 

She points out that in 2013, the European Commission estimated that $11 billion could be added to the European Union's annual GDP "if gender parity was achieved in technology companies."

She also cites a 2014 Credit Suisse report that found firms with greater gender diversity on their boards performed better in the stock market, with higher valuations and dividends.

That's to say nothing of the ethical argument for providing equality of opportunity, and the fact that diverse teams are more representative of the populations they're developing products and services for.

So while Canada's digital economy may be booming, there's plenty of evidence to suggest prioritizing diversity will be key to keeping that going.

"Everyone knows that a company's success is based on its talent. So, if you're not tapping into all the talent inside or outside your company you will not be as successful as if you do," says Carol Stephenson, former dean of Western University's Ivey Business School, in a Women in Communications and Technology guide to closing the gender gap.

"Add to that the value of diversity of thinking," she says, and "you end up in a better place if you have a group of people who don't all think in the same way."


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.