Dave Thomas
CONTRIBUTOR

Matthew Smith
PHOTO EDITOR

There are lots of obstacles and challenges for women entering the tech field, but there are also many rewards and successes.

It’s an area that’s still dominated numerically by men, from coding to the boardroom. Waterloo Region hit the news in a negative way last summer when a survey by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives pegged Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo as the worst community in Canada in which to be a woman. It looked at criteria such as leadership roles, education attainment and economic security.

But the outlook is not entirely bleak.

Tina Nguyen is the main organizer of Girl Geek Dinners Waterloo Region, regular gatherings that “bring together technically-inclined women, from students to experts, artists to engineers.” She says there are many initiatives that provide support and impactful change, such as Year of Code Waterloo Region, Code Like A Girl and Ladies Learning Code/Girls Learning Code.

There are also many successful startups headed by women.

Caitlin MacGregor co-founded Waterloo-based Plum with her husband, Neil MacGregor, and Christine Bird. The company’s software is a pre-employment assessment tool and hiring solution to determine candidate fit. MacGregor is Plum’s CEO. She studied international development before discovering her entrepreneurial flair through building up two other companies, and heads up efforts to raise funds for the company. She’s faced perceptions and assumptions that men don’t.

In a recent open letter MacGregor responded to an article that discussed a perceived lack of women candidates in Silicon Valley venture capital firms. She wrote that “men may be judged based on potential or gut instinct, whereas women will be judged on absolutely everything else.

“For example,” MacGregor continued, “a man may be hired or invested in by another man because he is relatable… Because he is reflecting a pattern that has proven to be a success and due to that reflection, the employer or investor is willing to take more of a risk on them. Women are rarely given that leap of faith.”

Never one to shrink from a challenge, MacGregor has had to work that much harder to seek grants and investment funds. That’s her strength, and she’s managed to raise $1.7 million to grow her company. That meant a lot of work to get matched with an American accelerator program and to compete for industry awards to build a profile of achievement. It’s important to have those tangible results in order to attract investors, she says.

MacGregor’s colleague Bird, who heads up sales for the company, has also faced some obstacles, such as being told that she should tone down her sales presentation, or wear more neutral clothing than the colourful dresses she prefers.

Beth Nenniger and Laura Austin also came from non-tech backgrounds to establish their startup, DraftingSpace, in 2013. The two architecture grads from the University of Waterloo came up with the idea of building a software platform to make designing bathroom layouts easier for the average user.

After graduating, they had to learn how to code. They did online tutorials and joined a Python group. The group consisted mostly of male tech grads, but the two women felt welcome right from the beginning. With financial support from the Velocity Venture Fund—theirs was the first startup with a female CEO to get such support—they were able to engage additional expertise to finish a prototype app.

Getting off the ground over the next year and a half, Nenniger and Austin soon met up with the founders of Vancouver-based BuildDirect, a large online building supplies company who eventually acquired DraftingSpace. Nenniger and Austin still work with their colleagues out of a downtown Kitchener office, heading up the design centre division of the company.

Stories about women-led companies like Plum and DraftingSpace/BuildDirect bode well for the kind of impactful change that Nguyen says is needed in the sector. “Women and men need to be advocates,” she says, and to “step up (and) lead by example.”