Women In Tech: Cultivating The “Jills” Of All Trades


Listen up, ladies. We’re dominating the professional workforce right now, but the ol’ boys club is still taking over the technology space.

Only 25% of information technology jobs are held by women in the U.S.; in Canada, only 30% of the tech workforce is made up of women.

Move up that corporate ladder and the numbers shrink even more.  Only six of the top 100 American tech companies are led by female CEOs and only 14 companies of Deloitte’s list of 50 fastest-growing Canadian technology firms have female executives.

I sat down to talk to Carolyn Van, a Jill of many tech trades, about what it’s like to work as a woman in technology, the barriers she’s faced, and the movement to push back against the gender gap.

thirdocean founder Carolyn Van

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do professionally.

Carolyn: I juggle a number of different roles. I’m the founder of thirdocean, a social media marketing and community management agency.

I’m also an advisor for the Sheridan College Advertising and Business program, and the Director of Business Development for Driven Accelerator, a mentorship organization providing training, support and access to capital for tech founders. Venus Ventures is the latest project I’ve been working on.

What is it like being a woman in the tech industry?

Carolyn: Interesting to say the least. I’m somewhat of hybrid. My core is in marketing and communications strategy but I also do have some technical skills. My creative and technical skills coupled with my strong marketing skills enable me to work in areas around business strategy, processes, operations, communications and design. I get a bit of both worlds and it really is night and day. The technical side of the industry is definitely more male dominated, whereas the communications side is more female dominated.

Have you personally encountered any barriers because of your gender?

Carolyn: I have. Sometimes it’s communicated to me directly, other times it’s more subtle and indirect. I’ve had some pretty ridiculous things blatantly said to me like, “women do this” or “this is for you because you’re a woman”.

But honestly, every day I face indirect encounters of those barriers. For example, I’ll be sitting in a meeting and the attention is definitely towards the male in the room despite my professional role or my level of expertise. I know that other women go through as well. I’ve heard stories about women presenting their ideas at tech start-up events where men would not just disengage, but actually leave the room.

The environment we set up in workplaces also plays an important role. In one incubator program, there was a female participant who brought her child and had to breastfeed. She had to bring out her breast pump from her purse, but didn’t have anywhere private to do her thing. Immediately that creates an unwelcoming space. It’s unfortunate and it’s going to take a lot of time to overcome these barriers because a lot of these are systemic issues that I recognize won’t change overnight.

What do you see as the role of women in tech?

Carolyn: What’s driving innovation is technology. But women shouldn’t feel like contributing in a technical capacity is the only way to make it in this industry. Though there is an increasing demand for technical skills, there will always be a demand for great managers, facilitators, and visionaries. That’s never going to go away.

A lot of these new tech startups – while technically making great products – are missing the strategists and  visionaries that will propel them forward. If we’re developing talent out there that’s heavy on the technical side but lacking that other piece, then we’re not building sustainable businesses or a sustainable business economy.

I’ve recently founded Venus Ventures, an initiative that will provide resources for female leaders in the tech and startup industry. We want to encourage and promote female-led ventures and dispel the mystery behind the lack of diversity in many senior executive levels.  It is initiatives like Venus Ventures, the rise of mommy bloggers and women being courageous, in general, by starting their own movements that will change perceptions.

What advice would you give to female grads or students who are looking to build their careers in the tech industry?

Carolyn: Find really good mentors. When I say mentors, I don’t mean female mentors exclusively. Some of my best mentors are men. You need to have really strong mentors who will help push you and who have seen the rounds of different generations coming in and out of this industry. Connect and find people who have experience in the area that you want to specialize in.

Look for opportunities that exist outside of the classroom walls. I went to Ryerson University’s business school and specialized in Marketing. I think one of the great things that I got out of my education wasn’t just the formal program, but the fact that I found myself in a senior executive role at a start up at the same time. So, while I was learning, I was also applying. Complement your formal education with real world experience as much as possible. If your educational institution is not giving you what you need in terms of the applying your learnings – just go seek the opportunities yourself. There are no excuses.

Give yourself exposure and work in diverse teams. When looking at internships or job placements, really consider who the team comprises of. I can guarantee you that with a more diverse team – sex, gender, skills or age – the end result is going to be of higher quality, more sustainable and you’ll have a more valuable experience. Diverse teams are critical for innovation, growth and sustainability.

Step up and talk about yourself. It can be scary to talk about yourself but it’s necessary to market yourself. Don’t be afraid to show off your skills if you’ve got ’em!

Want to learn more? Check out these great resources to help you along your journey. Go forth and tech, ladies!

Technology Week featuring student and entry level jobs from top employers like IBM and Reynolds & Reynolds

Photo credit: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

About the author

Justine Abigail Yu is a communications professional by day and a freelance writer by night. Graduating from the University of Toronto specializing in Political Science and Sociology, her heart lies in the development sector where she has worked with organizations operating in North America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. You can easily lure her in with talk of international development, human rights, emerging technologies, travel, and yes, Mad Men. Or a slice of cheesecake. Read her blog here or follow her on Twitter @justineabigail.