Innovation sectors continue to fail spectacularly at gender equity and diversity

Mark Henderson
July 18, 2017

The UK, US and Canada still haven’t managed to break the average 20% threshold for gender equity across STEM academic disciplines. In some cases, the numbers of women are actually declining and certain disciplines that like to boast higher numbers are still well below parity.

To address the lack of progress being made by universities, Canada’s Science minister has made accessing research funding dependent on achieving gender equity and diversity and has called on university presidents to address the lack of women in the Canada Research Chairs program.

High-performance computing (HPC), scientific computing, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) academic departments and the information technology (IT) industry are the epicenters for wealth, power and our future prosperity. These sectors are dominated by men who in general are completely blind to their privilege and of the negative experiences of women and other underrepresented groups in their fields.

A growing body of evidence makes clear that diverse teams that include women executives result in increased competitiveness, creativity, innovation and profitability. Forbes and McKinsey Global Institute conclude diversity and cultural competency will be the #1 skill for competitiveness in the knowledge economy.

The IT sector and STEM research are the most vulnerable to talent shortages. Yet, according to, computer programming is the worst place to be if you’re expecting equal pay for equal work.

Women in HPC (WHPC) reports that the UK, US, Europe and Canada have not achieved anything higher than 17% participation of women at HPC industry and academic conferences. Canada is currently failing to produce the 200,000+ skilled IT workers needed by 2021. Artificial intelligence, big data, and STEM research are key growth areas for Canada’s future, yet the pipeline for talent is anything but diverse.

A colleague believed his field of physics was immune to such behaviour. Why? He never saw it. He was surprised to learn a former female colleague experienced mild flirting to outright propositioning from married men twice her age when they worked together. Our Science minister has spoken of her negative experiences as a woman in STEM.

In a recent survey of approximately 5,000 academic researchers using advanced research computing services – 22% of whom identified as women – 722 indicated they were visible minorities, and even more distressing only 22 were Indigenous researchers.

My parents counselled Indigenous students from James Bay when they came to Gatineau, Que. to finish high school. My parents prepared them on how to handle the inevitable discrimination from the police force, other students and teachers. A lesson my parents never had to give to me. Most of the STEM community did not worry about discrimination while completing high school.

Efforts are focused on the wrong problem

For more than a decade, these sectors have adopted initiatives to motivate girls to study STEM and support, attract, train and retain women. None have succeeded in any big way because the focus is always on the group that is marginalized and not the dominant culture. Women are leaving or not joining these fields because the work/team environment is uncomfortable at best and unsafe at worst.

 The Elephant in the Valley project asked more than 200 women in Silicon Valley to share their experiences. It showed that 65% of women who report unwanted sexual advances had experienced them from a superior, with half receiving advances more than once. One in three have felt afraid for their personal safety because of work related circumstances. And 66% felt excluded from key social/networking opportunities because of gender while 59% have felt they have not had the same opportunities as their male counterparts. And 90% witnessed sexist behavior at company events and/or industry conferences.

The dominant culture must adapt

Women no longer willing to put up with sexual harassment and assault in the workplace in Silicon Valley have gone public with their experiences. Disgraced executives, lost business and large payouts have followed.

So now that we have a stick to force gender equity, what will it take to increase men’s participation for diversity and inclusion beyond the usual photo-ops and lip service? We need to push the burden of adaptation on the shoulders of the dominant culture and that means challenging colleagues in ways you may have avoided in the past.

 Researchers at the universities of Colorado, Texas and Singapore found women and minorities are judged harshly when promoting diversity in the workplace, and are often viewed as less effective, and receive poor performance reviews.

Understanding privilege is difficult when it is so prevalent and most men do not understand that their own experience is radically different from a colleague that is not part of the dominant culture.

Research shows punitive or obligatory diversity or cultural sensitivity training fails. However, champions for change are born through understanding and men can become informed and be powerful ambassadors. Women and visible minorities all have a story to tell and it’s time to start listening.

We need more leaders to develop cultural competency as a strategic goal that is measured and supported. Managers and professors must be held accountable for closing the gender gap and it needs to be linked to performance or access to funding. We know it doesn’t just happen on its own.

 Our current leaders need to think carefully about mitigating resistance to change within their organizations. Most STEM teams have similar interests, experiences and education. These teams need to invest in understanding the experience of women and communities, professions and disciplines that are not the part of their current professional or social networks.

The game has changed. Those that fight to maintain the status quo in STEM, IT and HPC are investing in a failing model that has reached its expiry date.

Kelly Nolan is executive director of external affairs at Compute Canada. For more than 15 years, Nolan led organizations’ strategic relations, diversity and inclusion and business development efforts in the IT/STEM and health sectors.

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