When Eden-Belle O’Neil looked around her science and technology classes, she says she never saw students or teachers that looked like her.
Her mother, Trudy O’Neil, says Eden-Belle being the only Black kid in school was impacting her teen’s sense of belonging, especially when it came to aspirations of being in the technology industry.
To Eden-Belle, she knew that her classrooms “did not even slightly reflect the population.”
And she is right.
In Canada, Black women account for 1.79% of the population but only account for 0.56% of the sector’s population. But in BC, Black women account for a dismal 0.18% of the tech workforce.
Systemic barriers like wealth and income inequality, lack of role models, and poor academic preparation from earlier education in STEM courses in high school have even resulted in girls as young as five years old not having a space to develop an interest in tech.
The study found that some minority groups are better represented in the sector. For example, people with a Chinese heritage make up 11.2% of the population and are 16.3% of the BC workforce. But other minorities are not in the same position.
“Blacks, Filipinos and South Asians are 0.9%, 3.2% and 8.0% of the population but are 0.8%, 2.7% and 6.2% of the tech workforce respectively,” the report reads.
While Eden-Belle says she never let the lack of representation stop her, she worries it may impact other Black students who dream of a career in technology.
“When you see people who look like you, it feels more possible, like ‘Oh, I could do this.’ As opposed to ‘oh, that’s for those people. That’s [for] the white people, not for us.’ So, I think it helps to see people that look like you,” she says.
But when Eden-Belle and her mother discovered a Vancouver-based tech hub for youth, it all changed for the better.
Ethọ́s Lab is creating the leaders of tomorrow by providing a space to ensure all students feel like they belong in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
The local lab offering hands-on projects, mentorship, field trips, and so much more is why this 14-year-old says she’s been more motivated than ever to break the glass ceiling.
Underrepresentation can be damaging to the tech workforce
The BWBN report makes it clear that the significant loss of Black female tech talent from kindergarten to postsecondary education is not the only reason for the lack of representation in the workforce.
After school, women face barriers like recruiting and hiring, discrimination, inequities in pay, negative stereotypes, harassment, and bias in promotion which results in decreased job satisfaction and high turnover.
Without diversifying the workforce, BWBN says the industry will not be able to meet the workforce requirements required to maintain Canada’s economic growth.
This can be a big loss to an industry generating $15 billion a year in GDP in BC alone.
Not to mention slow efforts for Vancouver’s growing technology sector which is constantly seeking qualified candidates as it expands.
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BWBN adds that research shows revenue, profits, employee satisfaction, and engagement increase with diverse workforces.
“It has been demonstrated that diverse companies and teams are more likely to innovate and introduce new products to the market,” it says.
Especially in diverse communities, BWBN points out that an underrepresented workforce can exacerbate inequality.
“Lack of opportunity, access, and inclusion in occupations with the highest wages and jobs is equally damaging for communities of colour,” the study reads.
A vicious cycle of underrepresentation
An interviewee in the study explained that Black women in tech have adopted to jumping through hurdles and hoops to create space for themselves in the industry. They said that this resiliency to move obstacles proves these women are creative thinkers.
But BWBN points out that a vicious cycle of underrepresentation leads to more underrepresentation.
“The lack of Black women in the sector propagates stereotypes among Black girls causing them to think or believe that the tech sector or certain tech roles are not ones that they can undertake or get far doing,” the report explains.
To improve representation and welcome Black women to stay in the sector, awareness is the first step, BWBN says.
BWBN says what comes next is:
- Providing opportunities for Black girls and women in tech,
- Encouraging Black women to start or transition into tech jobs,
- And retaining Black Women in tech by addressing the challenges they face.
“It’s going to be a journey. We need to come together as a community, acknowledge there is a problem, acknowledge there is underrepresentation and that this isn’t just a diversity and equity issue: it’s an economic and social issue,” added Pasima Sule, the executive director of BWBN.