From left to right: Aliza Lakhani, Ami Shah, Michelle Caers and Beata Caranci

Photo: Samantha Moya

DMZ hosts women in STEM panel

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By Anika Syeda 

Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ) was crowded with attendants on Oct. 5—largely female —listening in on the stories and wisdoms of three female speakers at the Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) panel.

The event was one in a series of women in tech peer-to-peer events hosted monthly by the DMZ, bringing together female founders and entrepreneurs across the Toronto-Waterloo corridor. The topics covered in these events span raising venture capital, product design, team growth, business expansion, and impactful leadership.

“Everyone has a role to play both on the education front and also on the labour market front,” said Beata Caranci, senior vice president and chief economist of TD Bank.

“Small efforts do make meaningful changes in people’s lives.”

Caranci brought with her a new report by TD Economics. According to the report, women in STEM disproportionately end up in lower-paying technical roles rather than higher paid professional ones, a phenomenon called occupational sorting.

“That’s where you’re a software tester versus a software developer, for example,” she explained.

Seeing as professional roles often pay three to four times as much as technical roles, Caranci believes the distinction is important to make.

According to Caranci, STEM professions are higher in demand and pay than most other general fields. This means if women aren’t encouraged to advance in STEM fields and enabled to receive higher paying roles, bridging the gender wage gap will be impossible.

Women in STEM need role models  

Ami Shah, co-founder and CEO of Peekapak said that many women looking towards STEM careers don’t often have a role model to look up to.

Shah spent a week recruiting for Peekapak at Waterloo and according to her, six candidates who were women said that only by chance, someone in their lives like a parent or teacher had gotten them to consider STEM careers.

“[One of the women] said ‘Growing up, I thought I could be a teacher or a doctor,’” said Shah. “‘But I didn’t know what programming would actually translate to in terms of a career, or how exciting it could be.”

Peekapak is a learning platform for young children, using a variety of cartoon characters to teach and improve life and learning habits. Every female character on this cartoon-based platform is a STEM character, intentionally.

Michelle Caers, founder and CEO of DesignedUX and DMZ entrepreneur-in-residence, echoed this phenomenon of not having a role model in her field.

Caers is a self-described “super nerd” who took computer science classes in grade school, went to computer camp, and took a few related courses in university.

However, she never pursued it as a profession until much later in her career.

Caers attributes this to the scarce visibility of women in STEM, or even in business.

“I didn’t have any role models,” she said.

The entrepreneur who spent a childhood empty of women in STEM to look up to proposed a two-part solution to the problem. 

Caers said that there needs to be more women in leadership as well as a more inclusive working environment for women in these positions.

“We need more women leadership, so women have someone to look to, to emulate and say ‘I can be like her, she’s awesome, and I want to be like that,'” she said. 

“And let’s make [the workplace] a more inclusive environment, so when they get there, they can have a good time. Because who wants to get there and everyday start climbing a mountain?”

Caranci confirmed both Shah and Caers’ sentiments, stating that the image of a career was a very important one for women and girls.

“It has to be very tangible,” she explained. “There is research that shows when they study how girls versus boys make choices on education selection, that social meaning comes through the scores in higher numbers of girls.”

This means that females tend to make their choices in alignment with what will have the most social impact.

“You need that mirror. A looking glass of where you’re going.”

Unconscious bias a problem in STEM 

All three panelists have come across barriers as women in profoundly male dominated fields, and all three agree that perhaps the most difficult challenge to overcome is the barrier of unconscious biases.

These are the social biases that infiltrate the subconscious. They can influence us to make inclined choices, despite the person having no intention doing this.

Shah is an intersectional minority in the start-up arena, being both a woman and a young entrepreneur. When fundraising for Peekapak after its initial conception, Shah attended a matchmaking event with angel investors at the DMZ.

Angel investors provide financial backing for small startups or entrepreneurs.

When she told them about her consulting work, she was given a surprising answer.

“He said, ‘You’re so young, you’re not qualified to be a consultant.’”

Shah has an MBA in strategy, social innovation, and entrepreneurship as well as six years of experience in the consulting field. 

Caers recalled a similar story, where she was in conversation with a male mathematics professor she describes as highly intelligent, a stout feminist, the proud father of two daughters, with a wife who is a professor.

She was recounting a chat with a start-up founder in the week prior, not having yet revealed the founder’s gender.

Her colleague automatically assumed she was describing a conversation with a male entrepreneur, when in fact, it was a woman.

“We bring our own unconscious biases to the table,” she said.

These are the social biases that incidentally infiltrate unconscious or insentient tools and make choices that are biased, despite the creator of the tool having no intention of it doing this.

One example of this was described by Caranci. Google translate, which is artificial intelligence and cannot make conscious choices, had within its languages this very unconscious bias.

When the phrase “He is a baby sitter and she is a doctor” is inputted in English, it can be translated to Turkish, which is a gender-neutral language.

However, she then took the Turkish and translated to English.

“And guess what came out?” she said. “The gender pronouns had been switched! If we have people who consume this unconscious bias, it seeps into their input and the output has that underlying bias.”

More leaders needed to set examples for women in STEM

Keeping in mind the many barriers women in STEM face, the overwhelming question in the room was “What can we do about it?”

To this, the panelists unanimously pressed the importance of enforcing female founders and leaders to set an example for women to follow. 

Caers also commended the men in attendance during the event, who were outnumbered greatly by the women in the room.

“Challenge your male colleagues to join you at events like this, because we have to do this together,” she said. “The women are not broken, the system is broken.”

“It’s important to create a space where we share ideas, stories, and best practices in order to empower one another and our greater community,” said Nouhaila Chelkhaoui, a start up services lead at the DMZ who organized the women in STEM event.

She echoed Caranchi, Shah, and Caers, saying “If we want more women in tech, then we need more role models they can aspire to.”

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