Changing the Channel in the STEM Sector

Dave Thomas

Matt Smith

The tech sector is a bright spot in Waterloo Region’s economy, but there is still a lot of work to be done before it’s a truly equitable environment for women and minorities.  Fortunately, there are efforts under way in the community, industry and academia to do just that.

“Tech is not a meritocracy,” says Stephanie Rozek, founder of Year of Code Waterloo Region (YoCWR).

“Unfortunately, there’s often an unconscious bias in hiring and advancement.” Statistics from the U.S. show that only about 27 per cent of workers in computer-related jobs in 2013 were women. The numbers are even lower in management positions.

At the University of Waterloo, female enrolment in computer science has decreased substantially since peaking in the late 1980s.  In 2010, only 12.5 per cent of CS students were female. In the 1980s, that figure reached 33 per cent. In math, the percentage of women has risen gradually to 32 per cent, and in engineering it was 18.5 per cent in 2010.

“We are at a point where subtle shifts are happening,” says Rozek.

“Waterloo Region has a good opportunity to do better and to distinguish itself. We can harness that barn-raising tradition and our technical prowess to really accomplish something positive.”

There are a number of efforts to raise awareness and effect change. On March 10, YoCWR and Sun Life Financial will host Change the Ratio Waterloo Region at the downtown branch of the Kitchener Public Library. The event is designed to highlight strategies and feature the leaders who are working towards substantial change in the sector.

Alice Thomas, chief digital technology officer at Sun Life, says it is important to have the workforce reflect the diversity of the community. The company has made concerted efforts over the past few years towards that goal, she says, and the efforts can’t stop now.

“At Sun Life, 40 per cent of IT staff are female. The industry average is about 30 percent, and even though we’ve passed that, it’s still not good enough.”

In 2015, the University of Waterloo joined HeForShe and committed to Impact 10X10X10 to increase female enrolment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and faculty hiring of women, and to improve advancement opportunities for women in leadership roles.

“We’ve been hard at work engaging the university community, launching events and mobilizing,” says professor Stacey Scott, the HeForShe faculty advocate for Engineering.

“Addressing gender equity issues… is a highly complex and systemic issue.”

However she is confident that the efforts will have a positive impact on the university and the local STEM sector.

“The awareness and educational initiatives on campus… will produce male and female graduates with more positive attitudes and appreciation for women’s competencies and interests in STEM fields,” says Scott.

The campaign has evolved on campus, as concerned community members advocated for looking beyond the binary gender framework to be more inclusive, and to acknowledge the broader need for inclusion of all under-represented minorities.

Rozek is also confident that that these efforts across the community will be effective, but will take time. “Perhaps we are at a point where things are changing,” she says.

“If we can bring more people on board, it will happen faster.”