Women in Technology | Breaking gender barriers, STEM, and the future of femtech

By BrainStation September 22, 2017
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We sat down with female leaders from integrate.ai, a SaaS startup applying AI to drive growth and customer satisfaction for large enterprises. As women working in tech, we asked them to share their experience getting into the tech industry, who inspires them, what we can do to empower women to enter the tech force and their advice to women looking to make their mark in tech.

 

Integrate.ai’s Female Leaders

women in tech

Roshanak Houmanfar, Machine Learning Scientist

Roshan is an experienced Machine Learning Scientist, having worked in a variety of roles from developing gesture recognition algorithms at Thalmic Labs as a research assistant to building models and maintaining big data servers at DataESP, which helps large retailers optimize sales by improving product distribution. Her models enabled large retailers to manage and optimally place over $200M in products across hundreds of retail locations. Roshan has a Master’s degree in machine learning from the University of Waterloo and focuses on her work as an artist when she’s not deep into data science.

 

women in tech

Megan Anderson, Business Development Director

Megan is a Business Development Director at integrate.ai. Previously she was a consultant at McKinsey and Company and is also the Co-Founder of #GoSponsorHer, a social campaign to increase the sponsorship of high potential woman in their careers. In her spare time, she is a theatre enthusiast, her latest role was Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, and is an avid marathon runner!

 

women in tech

Holly Xie, Data Scientist

Holly is a Data scientist, passionate about machine learning and big data technologies. She previously built credit risk models in RBC retail banking to measure potential loss, covering a >$200 billion portfolio. She is also very dedicated to building a thriving data science community in Toronto. In her spare time, she is a part-time instructor with WeCloudData, which empowers people to pursue data science/data engineering careers that they love. Holly graduated from University of Waterloo with a Master’s degree in Math. Born and raised in Chongqing, China and sports and music are the two indispensable things in her life.

 

women in tech

Kathryn Hume, Vice President Product & Strategy

Kathryn is also a Venture Partner at ffVC, a seed- and early-stage technology venture capital firm, where she advises early-stage artificial intelligence companies and sources deal flow. As the former Director of Sales and Marketing at Fast Forward Labs, Kathryn led Fortune 500 companies to accelerate their machine learning and data science capabilities. Kathryn has given lectures and taught courses on the intersection of technology, ethics, law, society at Harvard Business School, Stanford, the MIT Media Lab, and the University of Calgary Faculty of Law. She speaks seven languages and holds a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University and a BA in mathematics from the University of Chicago.

 

How did you become a part of the tech industry? Did you face any gender barriers?  

Roshanak: I became part of the tech community because my mother believed that I had a “math brain” and it would be a huge waste if I didn’t pursue it. My parents always believed that I could achieve anything I wanted. I also went to an all-girl school in upper-middle-class areas where girls were encouraged to compete and reach for the highest. To be honest, I never even knew that this discrimination existed until I went to the university. It was there that I faced for the first time the conservative crowd that believes women are biologically inferior in engineering than men.

Megan: I entered tech after spending a few years in consulting at McKinsey where I focused on digital transformation. The barriers I faced were 100% self-fabricated. I really feared my ability to be the first employee at a company that had huge promise in a sector that I knew very little about. Thankfully I had sponsors, family members and friends who told me to “Get over myself and get in there! Of course, you can do it!”. I also had the famous advice from Lean In playing in my mind on repeat – get on the Rocketship. I got on.

Holly: I did my bachelor and master in STEM files so it’s quite natural for me to pursue a career in the tech industry. Luckily I didn’t experience any gender barriers in my career so far.

Kathryn: I started in tech after completing my PhD in comparative literature at Stanford. At that time, I was prepared to either be a professor on the French Enlightenment at Princeton or a taxi driver. It took some time to adapt to the culture of tech companies, and that transition was harder to overcome than gender barriers. I don’t regret the shift for a second.

 

Mentorship and networking are crucial to advancing women in tech. Who/what has been a great resource for you?

Roshanak: I do not think of myself as a woman at the workplace … it is hard to explain but I think of myself as a source of energy with consciousness who is capable of moving matter and doing things; therefore I get inspired by men and women alike. My greatest mentors so far have been my graduate studies supervisor, Dana Kulic, my boss at dataESP, Ryan Anderson, and everyone at integrate.ai who makes me want to be a better self. I think about tech giants in the same fashion and try to find traits that I can adapt. I adore Sheryl Sandberg and Elon Musk.

Megan: So many people! I have been lucky to have many strong mentors and sponsors in my career. Recently a new inspiration has entered my life – Kathryn Hume, VP of product and strategy at integrate.ai. Kathryn is brilliant: highly knowledgeable in AI, extraordinary communicator, strategic and trusted salesperson. She pairs that brilliance with vulnerability, passion, transparency and kindness. I get inspired by people who make me want to be better. She makes me want to a better professional. Perhaps most importantly, she makes me want to be a better human being.

Holly: Toronto Women’s Data Group is a good one for women who are already in or aspiring to be in data-driven fields.

I’m heavily influenced by Dr. Fei-Fei Li, a pioneer in the AI/ML area. She is also an immigrant from China, which is another reason why I feel a strong connection to her. Her vision for the world, along with her phenomenal work has continually motivated me to pursue a career in the tech industry, regardless of gender or skin colour.

Kathryn: I was fortunate to have my mother, a strong technology executive, as a role model since I was a child. I grew up thinking that women have positions of power, that women lead teams, that women negotiate, and that women can do all this and also be loving and caring to their kids.

 

How can we make STEM careers more approachable and accessible to women?

Roshanak: Looking back on my own experience, it may sound strange but I think the solution is to stop talking about careers in a gender-based concept. Growing up, I didn’t realize that the world perceived women as less capable in engineering and therefore I never had any reservation in pursuing what I loved.

Megan: I think there is a lot that we can do but I will focus on my favourite: Sponsorship. Women tend to be over mentored and under-sponsored. A sponsor is someone who believes in you enough to play an active role helping you in your career – they introduce you to opportunities, talk you up when you aren’t in the room and coach you. We all need people like this in our careers – most executives will tell you that they had people who “took them under their wing” at various points in their career. Yet, women are 46% less likely than men to have a sponsor. So if you are early in your career start looking for someone who can sponsor you. If you are more established, give back and start looking for someone that you can sponsor. Check out Go Sponsor Her for more info!

Holly: Education is the key. No one is born to stereotype other people or be stereotyped. Always teach our kids, male or female, that gender is not an obstacle that should prevent you from being the person you want to be. My family always reminds me that other people don’t get to decide who I am – I should decide that for myself.

Kathryn: There’s work to do at every level. Young girls should never be told they can’t do math. If they don’t want to, that’s fine, but there should be no restrictions on their sense of self. College and PhD programs should include social events that women love, not just beer bro outings. Women should be on panels and on boards, to show others what’s possible.

 

How can we help girls to grow up with confidence? What works for you?

Roshanak: What worked for me was my mother never consoled me in the presence of discrimination, she always told me that I should learn to fend for myself despite the way the world is, and at every stage if I don’t define myself people will define me.

Megan: Tough love and feedback. When boys fall at recess in the schoolyard they are told to get up and brush off. When girls fall people rush in for a hug and are escorted inside to rest. I think that from a very young age the world can sometimes try to “soften the blow” for girls. This persists later in life. The women in the workplace 2016 study by McKinsey and Lean In found that women get informal feedback significantly less often than men, despite asking for it as often. Pushing someone to be better (whether that be through feedback or telling a child to get back on their feet and go play with their friends) is a gift. I have been lucky to have many people in my life who cared enough to push me to be better, which often meant telling me things that I did not want to hear.

 

What advice do you have for women looking to succeed in the tech industry?

Roshanak: Have grit and don’t get discouraged.

MeganThere are many ways to get involved in tech right now and they don’t all require advanced degrees. If tech interests you – start applying and networking for jobs in the field. Studies show that women tend not to apply for a job unless they meet 100% of the job description, whereas men will apply if they meet 60%. I think men have it right here. Tech changes so quickly. What most roles really need is people who are intellectually curious, gritty and quick learners, so don’t get intimidated by a long job description. In parallel, start learning more about the relevant topics that interest you through courses at places like BrainStation or Coursera. Don’t wait till you are “100% ready” because no one ever is.

Kathryn: This will sound cliche, but follow your passion. Pay attention to what makes you tick, to the topics and work that you love so much it doesn’t feel like work. Once you hit your groove, the opportunity will follow.

 

How can women and men empower each other to break stereotypes?

Roshanak: I think I have had my healthiest relationship with coworkers when I was not treated as a woman but as an Engineer. I think it would be nice if the gender labels were not emphasized in a professional setting.

Megan: Communication and feedback. Underlying a lot of our challenges today is unconscious bias. This is a tricky one to tackle because it is UNCONSCIOUS. The only way we can start to tackle this is by talking about it and giving people feedback. Did you just spend an hour getting interrupted in a meeting? Pull the person aside afterwards and gently talk to them about it.

Kathryn: By adopting the Sherlock Holmes maxim that the truth is always stranger than fiction. Stereotypes are boring! Who wants to live in a world where people don’t break expectation? It’s so much richer to embrace everyone in their individuality, no matter what gender someone identifies with.

 

Where do you see tech in 5 years, from a diversity standpoint?

Roshanak: I think diversity is going to become better as we go forward and the reason is simple: Diverse groups have more ideas and points of view, which leads to the development of better products and better work environments. It is a Darwinian selection to me.

Megan: I am incredibly optimistic for three reasons:

  • We have a pipeline that is stronger than ever. Last year more than 30% of U of T engineering was women. Most of the recent Harvard MBA graduating classes have had more women than men
  • Millennials are different than our parents. Both genders want great culture, more flexibility, and balance. Both genders see the value of diversity. Work-life balance is no longer a “woman thing,” it is a human thing so we can all work together to shape nextgen working environments
  • There is more awareness of the challenges that women face in tech and solutions are starting to be implemented

Kathryn: AI is unique as a field of technology because it bridges sociology and mathematics. It can be like applied ethnography. All the ethical issues raised by the tools can only be addressed with a plurality of viewpoints. If we want to do this right, we have an obligation to make sure our community is diverse.