Women in coding start to break through the binary ceiling

“You shouldn’t be in technology. You should be a stay-at-home mom.”

As a college student in the late 1990s, Stephanie Remniak was one of 12 women in a class of more than 600 when one of her computer engineering technology instructors told her, “You shouldn’t be in technology. You should be a stay-at-home mom.”

It didn’t deter her.

“I was more determined than ever,” the Computer Network Administrator program chair recalls with a laugh. She loved coding and wasn’t about to let anyone tell her that she couldn’t consider it as a career.

Besides, she had wanted to change things. Women make up just 25 per cent of the tech industry’s workforce. They’re also vastly underrepresented in Canadian post-secondary science and technology programs (in Alberta, the provincial government has even created a scholarship program to boost female representation).

“[Women] have to prove themselves over and over again to gain the trust of male colleagues.”

The majority of today’s young university graduates (ages 25 to 34) are women, but only 39 per cent earn a degree in science, technology, engineering, mathematics or computer science, with just one third of those in computer programs. In the Computer Network Administrator and Network Engineering programs at NAIT, Remniak estimates that number to be roughly 10 per cent.

Many industry insiders – men and women – see its “bro culture” as the root cause. A management culture led by mostly young, white men who tend to surround themselves with similar personalities, has at times created a fraternity-party atmosphere.

Women, says Remniak, “have to prove themselves over and over again to gain the trust of male colleagues.” Or leave, as some of her female colleagues have done.

Remniak is driven by the desire to reverse that trend, bring women into the industry and help them create within it a home for their vast potential and unique contributions.

With 10 years of experience in the industry before coming to NAIT, she has ideas about what’s needed to make meaningful, lasting change.

Model behaviour

As an IT administrator for a school division in Manitoba in the early 2000s, Remniak saw the beginnings of a shift in schools. Instead of taking courses in using Excel or Microsoft Word, “teens were learning how to do web design,” she recalls.

Today, she says, children are exposed in kindergarten to the kinds of technology that students like her didn’t get their hands on until junior high.

This early access to technology is key, says Remniak, but parental involvement and encouragement of girls in particular also needs to happen at home. She’d like parents to talk to their daughters about the women who were innovators in the field. Family movie nights that feature films such as Code: Debugging the Gender Gap or Hollywood blockbuster Hidden Figures can also be informative and empowering.

Outside the home, girls need more highly visible female role models, adds Remniak – something she lacked.

“Having female corporate mentors visit schools – particularly at the junior high level, before they’ve even entered high school – to talk to girls about their opportunities would also be a great idea.”

And if the mentors can’t come to the girls, girls can go to them. The Alberta Girls Engineering & Technology Summit, held in Edmonton in February, saw teens in grades 10 through 12 take part in coding workshops and meet female representatives from industry giants such as BioWare.

The national non-profit Canada Learning Code offers camps for girls, and its Edmonton chapter of Ladies Learning Code reaches women through IT workshops.

What does the future hold?

The corporate world is starting to see the importance of creating inclusive workplaces. In August 2018, a male engineer confirmed that he was dismissed by Google for “perpetuating gender stereotypes” in a memo he wrote criticizing the company’s diversity policies. His appeal was denied by the American National Labor Relations Board because of his “harmful, discriminatory and disruptive” statements.

“This news is encouraging, almost liberating,” says Remniak. “Let people do what they do really well, instead of judging them.”

At the other end of the spectrum, according to IT media site TechCrunch, many men entrenched in the industry are speaking out against the toxicity of bro culture. There are enormous benefits to bridging the gap between the sexes in coding.

“Today’s workforce has changed.”

Studies show that diversity results in better performance, including increased productivity, improved staff retention and greater innovation.

“I’ve read studies that show women provide better communication and management skills. We’re good at multitasking and very detail oriented,” adds Remniak.

Perhaps in recognition of these factors, some companies are posting jobs with explicit appeals to women, she points out.

Remembering the lack of female representation she encountered as a young woman in computing science, Remniak works hard in her current role to be that role model for others.

What might she tell a young woman considering a future in computing science?

“Today’s workforce has changed. Even if you’re the only woman in your organization, these days men are much more willing to accept women on their teams and listen to what we have to say. We have great ideas.

“You have the skills to do what you want to do; don’t be afraid.”

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