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The She-Covery and the Role of Women in Business and Tech

Women have been disproportionately affected economically by the COVID-19 pandemic. But when this is all over, will their voices be a part of the recovery or left silent?

While the negative economic impact on women during the pandemic has been dubbed the “she-session”, what about the “she-covery”? Without a vaccine and no end to the pandemic in sight, it’s hard to imagine what recovery will look like. The potential long-term consequences of inaction on this impact remains unknown but one thing is clear: women have to be a part of the solution.

A recent report by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) highlights several reasons for the adverse economic impact on women during the COVID-19 pandemic. These include occupations and sectors shut down during the state of emergency mostly employed women, businesses owned by women tend to be newer, smaller, and less well-financed than those owned by men, restrictions to schools and childcare facilities have left mothers largely responsible for family care, and women make up the majority of frontline workers, leaving them out of pandemic recovery planning.

These factors have left certain groups of women, including racialized women, Indigenous women, single mothers, low-income women, immigrant women, women with disabilities, and those living in rural areas, at an even greater disadvantage.

Putting the She-Covery Into Action

The OCC’s report, “The She-Covery Project: Confronting the Gendered Economic Impacts of COVID-19 in Ontario”, outlines a path to Ontario’s “she-covery” by examining the market impacts, as outlined above, and providing policy solutions for immediate and longer-term challenges.

The report was presented in September at a webinar titled, “She Leads, Ontario Prospers- Overcoming the She-Cession”, where Wendy Cukier, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy, and Founder of the Diversity Institute, Ryerson University, spoke about the challenges in the workplace faced by women pre-COVID, including the wage gap and digital divide.

“COVID has exacerbated those problems and we’ve also seen an increase in domestic violence and mental health issues,” said Wendy. “Industrial sectors like retail, hospitality, and tourism have been affected by COVID. These are sectors where most women are represented in employment and entrepreneurship. Women also account for those in the trenches fighting the disease, putting their health at risk and post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s why leadership and accountability are critical.”

One of the solutions proposed by the OCC’s report is around workforce development initiatives as they relate to reskilling women with the goal of increasing their participation in the skilled trades, technology, and engineering roles.

Wendy, who has been working with women in technology for over three decades, said there were fewer women in computer science 30 years ago and today there are only a bit more in engineering.

This is something that Janie Goldstein, Founder of The Upside Foundation and Lecturer at The Chang School and Ted Rogers School of Management, knows well as only 10% of those in her electrical engineering degree at McGill University were female. “I wore my iron ring constantly when I started work because people kept confusing me as an assistant,” said Janie, adding that while there were some challenges, being one of the few women in engineering had its advantages.

“Often we (women) had greater social skills that allowed us to form study groups and to collaborate on projects and issues, which resulted in higher grades,” she said.

While Janie says it can be difficult for women to get into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, once they’re in, their appreciation for being there makes professors and fellow students want to help them out.

Although, not every woman needs to go into computer science or engineering, Wendy points out. “It isn’t just about encouraging more women to go into these fields,” she said. “It’s also about how we use technology to transform every industry and make sure that people have the tools and access to that technology.”

For example, Wendy cited e-commerce giant Shopify as a tool that women have used to launch their own business.

Likewise, Michelle McBane, Managing Director at StandUp Ventures and Part-Time Instructor at The Chang School said founders don’t have to be technically minded to start up their own business.

“Just because it’s a tech company, doesn’t mean you have to be a technical person to work there,” said Michelle, who teaches entrepreneurship curriculum, including the Identifying Opportunities course at The Chang School. “It’s more around having a passion for entrepreneurship rather than a skillset.”

Michelle added that tech companies have non-technical roles in business development, sales and marketing, and client success that might also be of interest to women.

More Women Entrepreneurs Needed

The OCC’s solutions also focused on entrepreneurship — an area where women are vastly underrepresented and the OCC proposed should be more inclusive to supporting women entrepreneurs. Only 16% of women are represented in the small and medium enterprise (SME) sector, according to Statistics Canada.

Janie, who teaches the Family Business in Canada course at The Chang School, said there’s increasingly more roles for women in family businesses, despite the lingering primogeniture culture where the first born male takes over the family business.

Family businesses create an environment conducive to the emergence of women in senior management positions. The analysis featured in the fall 2020 edition of the National Bank’s Family Advantage report shows that 13 percent of CEOs of NBC Canadian Family Index companies are women versus 5 percent for the S&P/TSX Composite. For director positions, this percentage is 28 percent for the Family Index compared to 18 percent on average at Canadian companies.

“How women can become more successful as entrepreneurs is by becoming entrepreneurs within the family business,” said Janie. “There’s a huge benefit for women to take a course to help them learn how to be more effective when they can pursue roles within the family business whether that’s the next generation successor or shareholder.”

Beyond skillset, Michelle said it’s about fostering a culture that’s attractive to women.

“When you start with ventures that are diverse right from the start, you attract a different culture because there’s people like them.”

Let’s hope the she-covery can do the same for women post-pandemic.