Building a better workplace

How diversity makes organizations more successful

Half a century after the height of the feminist revolution, we may have moved well beyond the Mad Men stereotype. But have modern sensibilities simply driven gender discrimination underground, making it more insidious and harder to fight?

From wage disparity to office politics, workplace equality in 2015 is far from the norm — and in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math), the possibility of gender balance seems even more distant.

According to University of Waterloo economics professor Kathleen Rybczynski (MA ’99), the gender divide in STEM is a self-perpetuating cycle. The more women there are in STEM disciplines and positions of power, the more excited girls and young women are to move in that direction. But in the current climate, it’s tough for women in STEM to see the role models they need to see.

This has an impact on Canadian business, in limiting the perspectives and innovations that both genders can bring to the table, and curbing Canada’s impact on the global marketplace.

“Despite knowing better, people often have preconceived notions about what women and men should be doing, and who should be hired for a particular position,” Rybczynski says. “We have social and cultural influences that affect not only women’s and men’s labour supply choices, but also how we value work done by men and women.”

Rybczynski points to a December 2013 Statistics Canada study by Darcy Hango, which suggests that despite the advances made in recent years, women remain less likely to choose a career in STEM (least of all engineering, math and computer science), and when they do choose careers in those fields, they’re not getting paid as much as men.

Rybczynski says the wage gap in Canada remains problematic.

“Most studies show mild decreases in the gender wage gap over time, primarily due to increases in educational attainment and occupation,” she says. “But the gap is by no means eradicated. Very broadly, the female-to-male wage ratio in Canada is estimated to be in the 80 per cent range. However, this estimate can vary by age, industry and other characteristics.

“And there are studies that suggest the gender gap may be small for new graduates, but after several years in the labour market, the gap is larger. For example, one study finds that a cohort of law students had similar earnings upon graduation, but 15 years out the women were earning only 60 per cent of what the men were earning.”

The most obvious contributor is the fact that women are the ones taking time off work to have children, and by choosing to do so they often fall behind on the career ladder. Part of the reason may be that women make different choices. If men choose a STEM vocation and women choose humanities, for example, there’s already a built-in wage differential, also known as an “explained gap.”

A large part of the “unexplained gap,” however, may be that women’s work is still relatively undervalued.

“I’ve seen enough examples where, if you discuss any research associated with gender, the automatic reaction is, ‘we’ve already studied that, it’s old news,’ ” Rybczynski says.

“And yet we’ve been studying the minimum wage literature for 100 years and there’s no knee-jerk reaction, like ‘oh we’ve already solved that problem.’ ”

Limits on women’s participation in the workforce can have impacts on business, both in leadership options and responsiveness to new corporate directions.

“A lot of research is talking about how we need women to participate in the market and we need women to take on leadership roles. Diversity, leadership and an openness to new perspectives is essential to business. Without it, we’re going backward instead of forward.”

KATHLEEN RYBCZYNSKI, professor of economics, Faculty of Arts

The reality is that Canada’s future in the global marketplace depends on receptiveness to new ways of doing business that overcomes impediments to ideas.

“If everyone has the same way of thinking, you’re not going to break those barriers. And it’s not just about gender. It’s about having diversity across race, sexual orientation, class, age, ability — these are all really important components to having different perspectives on things and to really bringing innovative ideas to the table.”

Workplace diversity: A business imperative

Professor Corey Johnson, who teaches recreation and leisure studies with an emphasis on social justice, says working toward inclusivity in the workplace is imperative to maintain a balanced and adaptable business ecosystem

“We must acknowledge that the workplace was designed for and by men,” Johnson says. “All the decisions around industry, structure, engineering — our entire social system — are grounded in patriarchy. That’s just the way things were.

“It’s hard to come to the realization that you might be a ‘good’ man but that nonetheless you still have all of this unearned invisible privilege. A lot of men can’t see that. But once they do, to ask a man to give up his power and resources is even more of a difficult challenge.

“We’ve seen much progress in relation to women’s equality. What we have to do now is really look at the system and how it continues to invisibly privilege men — and that means more access to opportunity and resources for women. We have to begin to move resources and think critically about the system so that we can create opportunity for women.

“For a long time we’ve had conversations where women need to fight for women’s rights. If we’re really going to think about our moms, our sisters, our daughters, we have to work in solidarity with women and think about how men and boys can begin to participate. Sometimes that even means giving up a little bit of power, engaging in hard conversations and making decisions to change the nature of the workplace.”

Corey Johnson

Corey Johnson, professor of recreation and leisure studies (Photo credit: One for the Wall)

Conversations about gender equity take on a new character with the widening of gender expression to include the transgender population, he says. The astute employer will anticipate changes, rather than react to them.

“As we see transgender people not only entering the workplace but possibly also transitioning during their work life, we need to have conversations and be supportive of them,” he says. “We often look to them to educate us, but it puts a lot of responsibility on that person, who already might be managing a lot. Instead we need to look to experts to provide opportunities in the workplace and education so we can respond most appropriately. These conversations around gender and sexual identity are going to increase so we need to be on the proactive side of things.”

Invisible walls: Why fewer women are in STEM (and fewer still stick around)

It’s not uncommon to believe that achieving equity is a matter of slow, steady progress. But in computer science, for example, the participation of women that peaked at 38 per cent in the 1980s has undergone a marked decline.

It’s no secret that male-dominated industries tip the scales in favour of men, and that some work environments remain stubbornly hostile toward women.

There are many reasons cited for the lack of girls and women in STEM. Most common are the unfriendly environment, the isolation that comes with having fewer female colleagues, and the lack of female role models in the boardroom.

Jo Anne Atlee

Jo Atlee, director, women in computer science, Faculty of Mathematics (Photo credit: One for the Wall)

According to last May’s Harvard Business Review, companies that aren’t proactive about these issues tend to drain women’s ambition after as little as two years. It’s a challenge to businesses that face losing this pool of highly trained and talented workers.

Jo Atlee, a professor of computer science and Waterloo’s director of women in computer science, believes that unbalanced workplace cultures become self-perpetuating — and that when women are earning less and battling to stay afloat in a toxic work environment, nobody wins.

Her best advice for women pursuing a career in STEM is to look for a company with a relatively high percentage of women.

Atlee spoke at an International Women’s Day dinner at the University in March 2015, where the topic was gender diversity in computing. The event covered a lot of bases, including the value to business of diversity in the workplace.


Atlee says workplace diversity matters to the bottom line: “It matters with respect to the quality of the software, and it matters that a more diverse team will come up with a greater diversity and number of creative ideas. The products themselves are different, the company performs better, they make better decisions — almost any business indicator you can point to improves as workplace diversity increases.

“These are arguments we’ve made for years, but now we’ve got some science behind it and I think that’s what’s making the difference now in the companies starting to pay attention to this issue.

“They understand that they will be more successful if they have a more diverse workplace.”

Not having that workplace diversity can mean a loss of talent to an entire sector of the Canadian economy. Consider the tech field, with its notorious long hours for talented engineers and designers.

“People tend to burn out,” Atlee says. “But instead of leaving for another company in tech, women tend to leave the field entirely instead — which is an interesting phenomenon because there are so many different types of jobs, so many different intensities. There isn’t this need for a mass exodus.

“All the stories about the tech field tend to be about Silicon Valley, but that’s just a small fraction of what computing is about. It’s not always the startup mentality of working 80 to 100 hours a week. Computing is a lot like math. It’s in every field. It’s in medicine, science, banking, insurance. There are lots of companies that require people who have computing skills. They’ll have positions that are nine-to-five, well-paid and secure.

“What we’ve found is the companies that have the most hostile environment are those that have the fewest number of women,” she says. “Part of what we’re trying to do is to educate people that their experience is probably more specific to their environment than something about the job. It’s not that they don’t belong. It’s really just that there’s a mismatch with that particular working environment. If you don’t like a place, there’s a good chance it’s the place and not you.”

And as for the men themselves … they say they don’t all want to work in a room full of guys all day.

“There’s plenty of male students who bemoan that they’re surrounded by other male students,” Atlee says.

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Women in the driver's seat

Women can and do choose to leave the pressure cooker behind. But it doesn’t mean they’re opting out of the workforce.

For electrical engineer and high-tech entrepreneur Cat Coode (BASc ’01), shaping her own destiny meant getting out of the corporate world and finding ways to use the STEM and business skills she’d already acquired to her own, self-employed advantage.

Having graduated in 2001 from the University of Waterloo with a degree in electrical engineering and a minor in computer engineering, Coode spent 12 years at Research In Motion (now BlackBerry), first as a developer and later in management. She put in some heinously long hours — until she reached the point where it no longer worked for her priorities.

People often ask why or how being a woman in tech is different. Coode illustrates with an analogy: “If a room full of teenagers are all chit-chatting and an adult walks in, the dynamic and energy in the room changes,” she says. “In tech, I consistently experienced the same thing. There are so few women that when I walked in a room of just men, I felt the men change their tone, their demeanour. I felt that energy in the room change. I believe it was done intentionally and to be respectful, but it was a reminder that I was different.

Cat Coode works with two young female entrepreneurs

An electrical engineer with a minor in computer engineering, Cat Coode (centre) the corporate tech sector to become a tech entrepreneur. After successfully pitching her company at Communitech’s Women Entrepreneurs Bootcamp in the past, she was invited back as a mentor. (Photo credit: Jon Bielaski, Light Imaging)

“I wanted to control my own life, and having left that corporate situation, I realized how many things about it were worse for me than I thought. I’m not saying it doesn’t work for any women. There are lots for whom it does work. But as a mother, it didn’t work for me anymore.”

These days, Coode is a tech entrepreneur who has drawn on her computer science background to build Binary Tattoo, a company that teaches Internet safety. It’s a win-win situation for herself, her family and her career.

“From a STEM perspective in the corporate world, that only woman-in-the-room thing becomes exhausting,” Coode says. “I adapted my behaviour to what I thought a room full of guys would be comfortable with, but I shouldn’t have felt this was necessary. Sometimes I didn’t want to be a woman engineer — I just wanted to be an engineer.”

Entrepreneurship and venture capital: Investment imbalance 

According to Wired magazine, the gender problem in venture capital is even worse. Nearly 80 per cent of venture capital firms have never had a woman represent them on the board of any of their portfolio companies, while 75 per cent don’t have any female venture capitalists at all.

And according to, women in Silicon Valley make up as little as four per cent of deal-making venture capitalists.

Bonnie Foley-Wong is one of several Waterloo alumni working to shake up the status quo.

As the founder, CEO and Chief Investment Innovator of Pique Venture Investments Inc., Foley-Wong (BMath ’97, MAcc ’97, Accounting) brings a different community of investors to the table as she intentionally seeks out more women and institutions led by women.

Over the past four years, she’s found herself on a journey that begs the questions: Where are all the women investors? And how can we invest differently?

“There just isn’t a lot of support for women in venture capital,” Foley-Wong says. “I grew up with the belief that if we’re hardworking and we enjoy what we do, we can succeed on our own merits, not because we’re women.

“I’m in the innovation space, but there’s not a lot of innovation in the investment industry itself. There’s an old approach to starting a fund that doesn’t really make room for women, for people who are just looking at the investment ecosystem differently.”

It may come down to something as simple as this: That despite the wealth of program support to enter the field, once women are looking for capital in the real world, they find themselves pitching to all-male (and mostly middle-aged and white) panels.

That lack of diversity at the decision-making level means everyone is looking through pretty much the same lens — and since what’s in front of them might not look like a typical startup, they may not understand the market, problem or solution being presented.

Many promising, capable, female CEOs are out there pitching, but they’re getting incredibly unhelpful feedback. One investor, for example, told a woman Foley-Wong knew that he just doesn’t invest in women with children under five years of age.

The reality is that who’s on the board matters a great deal. Since everything filters down from the top, if there are more women up top they can actually influence what the talent search looks like and open up situations where women can rise as leaders.

“My focus is to enable more women to be in that investment leadership role and have more of a voice in investment decisions,” Foley-Wong says. “In the past, we’ve been pigeonholed into things like HR and marketing. When I was in finance, I did deals. But there were very few women who were doing front-office deals. If our strengths were valued differently and if jobs were described differently, you’d have more diversity.”

Ultimately Foley-Wong is optimistic.

“It’s an important part of this whole ecosystem: women making investment decisions as leaders and investors,” she says. “I honestly do think women as investors are going to be making decisions about what problems get solved, what businesses get started, and who the next wave of leaders are that we’re going to support. That makes a huge difference in terms of diversity.”

It means that chipping away at the old structures is something we must do — not just because doing so is good for women, but because it’s good for the entire economic ecosystem.

Gender and the workplace: The STEM difference*


Median earnings for women with engineering degrees


Median earnings for men with engineering degrees



Unemployment rate for women with engineering degrees


Unemployment rate for men with engineering degrees



Unemployment rate for women with math/computer science degrees


Unemployment rate for men with math/computer science degrees


* Based on individuals aged 25-34 in 2011 * Source: Darcy Hango, 2013, “Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) programs at university” for Statistics Canada

Feature image photo credit: One for the Wall

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