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Workplace culture change needed to recruit more women in tech

When we talk about gender diversity in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, discussion often centres around education – how do we get more girls interested and involved in STEM at an early age, and keep them engaged throughout
Photo credit: Alfonso Arnold

When we talk about gender diversity in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, discussion often centres around education – how do we get more girls interested and involved in STEM at an early age, and keep them engaged throughout their academic careers?

It’s important. But really, it’s addressing only a fraction of the problem. The rest lies with people like me – owners of tech firms, or hiring managers at larger STEM-related organizations. We are the ones who, for far too long, have adopted the language and practices of exclusion, the ones who have, often unwittingly, sent the signal that women are not welcome in our workplace.

When I launched Webnames 20 years ago, ours was a very male-oriented culture. Partly that was a function of the team, in that outside of some key positions in marketing and finance, everybody who worked for us was male. All my business partners were male. And tech companies of that era followed a similar template. We all felt the need to have a foosball table, a beer fridge or video-game competitions to boost team cohesion and morale. It was the embodiment of “bro culture,” before people had a name for it. And it turned female candidates off.

Over the years, I became more conscious of culture, and making sure ours was an inclusive one. We established nursing rooms so young mothers on staff had a place to care for their children during office hours; on certain summer days or pro-D days, you might even find a few kids hanging out in our boardroom reading, playing games or making slime. We also changed the nature of some of our social activities: more family barbecues and charitable events – and competitions, like Tough Mudder, that don’t pit one person against another but rather focus on a shared goal.

A recent study by Deloitte indicates that three in five employees report “covering” in some way, be it appearance, affiliation, advocacy or association, to fit in at work. The lesson here? Rather than trying to “fit” women into your workplace, try creating a culture that’s a natural fit, where employees can share their whole and authentic selves from Day 1.

Part of the challenge in building an inclusive culture is adopting inclusive hiring practices, from the language used in job postings to where you recruit and how you interview candidates. Many companies, especially young tech companies, have done a terrible job on all three fronts.

Let’s take language first. How many posts have you seen (or, hands up, created) with words like “dominant,” “competitive,” “crushing it” or “punching above your weight”? That sort of aggressive language, often using sports metaphors, appeals to male candidates but turns off female ones; words like “collaboration,” “passion” or “teamwork,” by contrast, attract far more women. If you’re second-guessing yourself about how gender-neutral your job posting or HR material is, put it through a filter using tools such as Textio or the free Gender Decoder.

Also, if a job posting has a long list of required skills or experience, make sure all those requirements are absolutely necessary. Women tend to avoid applying unless they feel 100% confident they’ve got the requisite skills, whereas men will apply even when they don’t have all the skills. A recent study by Stanford University’s VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab, which looked at observational data from 84 recruiting sessions hosted by technology companies at a prominent U.S. university, demonstrated how overly technical language can also discourage qualified women. At one jargon-filled recruitment presentation, for example, almost a third of the male students in the room left early, while over half of the female students left.

When recruiting, it’s definitely worth looking outside the box. Most of your quality candidates will still come via college and university campuses, but how about women already in the workforce? Paid referrals are a big part of our recruiting efforts, but I’ve recently read about employers who post for jobs at daycare centres too; meet the female talent wherever they are, on or off the clock. And once you get them to an interview, make sure you’re doing everything in your power to make it an equitable decision-making process.

In a tight labour market like we have in B.C., it’s too easy to put all the blame on the pipeline by complaining about a lack of women graduating with STEM credentials. But as employers, we mustn’t overlook our duty to expand the market for female graduates in STEM, and make it easier for them to get into the workforce at each step along the way. •

Cybele Negris ([email protected]) is president, CEO and co-founder of, Canada’s original .ca registrar.