Technology is rapidly evolving, but the low number of women in computer science and engineering remains stagnant and experts say that this could have major implications for the future.

“Computing is at the heart of everything,” says Dr. Telle Whitney, CEO of the Anita Borg Institute and co-founder of Grace Hopper Celebration. “To be missing half the population is a significant loss to our world.”

In 2014, women made up only 22 percent of the science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and computer science (STEM) workforce. The number of Canadian women working in STEM fields has barely changed in the past three decades.

“Women were not really at the table for designing version 1.0 of this world and I think there’s a huge opportunity for us to be there the second time around”

“Women look at the world a little differently than men and I think we have a huge opportunity to disrupt and play a big role in the technology space,” says Vicki Saunders, founder of SheEO, an initiative that supports female entrepreneurs.


Documentary filmmaker Robin Hauser Reynolds saw the challenges women face in these industries through her daughter, who studies computer science at university. During her sophomore year, Reynolds’ daughter said that there were typically only a few women in her computer science lectures and that even in her entry-level courses, the male students seemed to have an existing in-depth knowledge of the subject matter.

“Really for the first time in all of her schooling, she was expressing a lack of confidence to succeed in a certain field,” says Reynolds. According to the 2011 National Household Survey, less than four in ten STEM graduates were women. However, women made up the majority (66 percent) of graduates in non-STEM industries.

The great geek

In her documentary CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap, Reynolds explored why the gender gap exists in STEM industries. She found numerous culprits, including the perception of what it looked like to work in these fields.
“The stereotype of a software engineer or a computer scientist is an asocial, nerdy white male,” says Reynolds. “If [women] don’t see people like themselves in the field, they don’t ever assume that that’s what they can become. They assume that these are really boring, nerdy jobs when in fact they can be creative and really interesting and collaborative.”

Build her up

Whitney, who has a PhD in computer science and has held multiple high-level positions in the industry, knows first-hand about being the only woman in the room.

“I grew up working in semiconductors and there were definitely not many women around,” she says. In an effort to provide women with more support, a broader network, and role models, she co-founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference.

In an industry where women usually only fill a few seats in the class or boardroom, walking out onto the stage in 1994 and seeing a crowd full of women passionate about engineering and technology was “life-changing,” she said. 

The conference has since grown dramatically and is expected to host nearly 12,000 people this year.

Whitney, Saunders, and Reynolds agree that as our society rapidly advances its use of technology, it is more important than ever for women to get involved. “Technology is driving a lot of change in the world and I think it’s really important that the kind of technologies that we’re building work for everyone,” says Saunders.

Canada may be in a recession, but STEM fields are growing faster than any other industry, creating a job market hungry for new talent.  “Women were not really at the table for designing version 1.0 of this world and I think there’s a huge opportunity for us to be there the second time around,” says Saunders.