Earlier this year I moderated a Women in Leadership panel discussion for the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) and Women in Communications and Technology (CWT) speaker series, with a focus on the intersection between retail and technology. This event brought together three female leaders running successful e-commerce businesses in Canada: Well.ca's President and CEO, Rebecca McKillican; BRIKA's co-founder and builder of business, Jen Lee Koss, and me.
As I expected, the combination of these two female powerhouses with topics that ranged from e-commerce and Canadian consumer habits to leadership skills and work/life balance led to a deeply engaging dialogue. One thing that surprised me was learning that I wasn't the only one without a "traditional" tech background. In fact, between the three of us, while there was one computer engineering degree, we also counted degrees in Law, Finance, Music, even Medieval History!
This got me thinking...we constantly hear about efforts to improve women's enrollment in STEM academic fields -- certainly something I actively encourage as well -- but, the lack of a formal science, technology or math education doesn't rule out the possibility of having a successful career in the technology sector. Case in point above. Each woman on the panel had various academic backgrounds, most leaning towards the Social Sciences and Humanities, yet we all ended up leading tech companies. We may not have started out as "techies", but we were curious and creative, and we had the ability to think critically about business problems and the skills to be leaders -- all keys to being successful in any industry, including technology.
Clearly, a STEM education is not the only way to work in or lead a technology company. So while we work to get more women enrolled in STEM programs, we can also work to increasing gender diversity in the tech sector by attracting women with a variety of backgrounds at all levels. It all comes down to a change in culture.
I may be biased toward the tech space, but I believe this industry is well positioned to be a leader in shifting work culture to better foster gender diversity. Why?
If any industry can reinvent itself, it's tech.
Well, for one reason, tech companies have been called out on the issue, and they are owning up to their responsibility to improve the gender balance. A couple of years ago, major tech companies including Apple, eBay, Google and Facebook released workforce diversity reports. Though the numbers weren't anything to celebrate, the mere fact of releasing this data was a big step forward. It was a strong demonstration that these companies were committing to transparency on this issue, and we all know that what gets measured gets changed. Also, earlier this year the World Economic Forum's Industry Gender Gap report found that no less than 37 per cent of companies in the IT sector regard enhancing women's workforce participation as an opportunity for expanding their talent pool; another step in the right direction.
During the ITAC/CWT panel discussion, I suggested that if a company doesn't have diversity as a core cultural value, then there is a slim chance it's actually going to happen. I'm proud that one of eBay's five cultural values is diversity, and there is evidence every day of it being put into practice. Two examples: eBay's Women's Initiative Network, a long-term program designed to support women to build lasting careers within the company, and our CEO's commitment to hiring a Chief Diversity Officer, reporting directly into him and tasked with leading the efforts to further advance eBay's work on diversity and inclusion.
Committing to a culture of gender equality and declaring it publicly both through words and actions not only creates a direct impact on employees, it also creates peer pressure and a halo effect for the industry as a whole.
Another reason why the tech industry is well-positioned to support gender diversity is because innovation and disruption is the DNA of any tech company, and cultural shifts are a form of both. If any industry can reinvent itself, it's tech.
Tech companies are infamous for playing around with work cultures through fun perks like ping-pong tables, fully-stocked kitchens and "take-as-you-need" vacation policies. But at their core, they are human capital companies that (in most cases) aren't tied to the client-service business model. They have far more flexibility to create new ways of working that are more inclusive and diverse. And women are leading the way in seizing the opportunity to experiment with culture.
Listening to Jen and Rebecca's career stories during the panel discussion confirmed that they were both great examples of women leaders building open and flexible work cultures. As a co-founder of a tech start-up, Jen had the opportunity to create a culture from the ground-up, prioritizing work/life balance for herself and her employees. She shared a story of how she wanted to hire a new employee, but they had a priority at home that required special work arrangements, so they worked together on establishing an alternative work agreement that met both of their needs.
Rebecca inherited a work culture by joining an established company, but that doesn't stop her from actively shaping it to be as inclusive as possible. One of the points she touched on was the need for more acceptance of different leadership styles, versus only measuring against typical male dominant traits. The culture she is working on recognizes the value in having a wide variety of leadership styles.
The tech industry, just like the other STEM industries, still has some work to do in terms of gender equality and encouraging more females to participate in the workforce. But, by establishing a culture that replaces frictions with flexibility for women, it will allow them to excel and reach their full potential, naturally creating a positive feedback loop of female leaders and role models.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook
ALSO ON HUFFPOST: