Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) is launching a Gender in Tech Series beginning with a conversation with ICTC’s own Elizabeth Mills to kickstart many more conversations that explore gender equity in the digital economy, and the challenges, and opportunities for organizations to create better gender representation in the tech sector.
Prior to ICTC, Elizabeth Mills worked with the government of Nova Scotia. At the time, Mills recalls walking into boardrooms where she was the only woman in attendance. While there were a lot of women working for government, “few were in senior level positions,” she says. That observation was transformative for Mills, who to this day, works as an ally and leader for marginalized peoples, advocating for newcomers, women of colour, and Indigenous peoples.
When Mills announced her retirement from the public sector as Nova Scotia’s Senior Executive Director of Labour and Advanced Education, ICTC approached her to run its Skills Development programming. Being familiar with ICTC from her government role, she leaped at the opportunity to end her month-long retirement and continue advocating for diversity and inclusion.
Mills is currently ICTC’s Associate Vice-President of Skills Excellence, advocating for greater representation of women in technology. She helps support women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, internationally educated newcomers, and women transitioning to digital economy jobs by increasing access to training and employment in the tech sectors.
Understand Systemic Barriers First
“In my day, women might have thought that we aren’t hard wired to be techies, but I absolutely think that has changed significantly. I think that young women today are very keen and very interested in technology and tech careers, whereas that wasn’t something many of them would have considered in my time.”
Change management for Elizabeth Mills begins with the individual, well before an organization begins working on an equity and inclusion policy or instituting mandates, quotas, or metrics to include women in tech. The leader of the organization must begin with purposeful self-reflection of unconscious biases and privileges. Each leader must ask, “How can I affect change as an individual as well as a leader within my company or organization.”
When diversity and inclusion training programs were first introduced across industries, Mills remembers there was, and still is to some extent, a resistance to take part because many people don’t see the problem. For example, a colleague told her, “I don’t know why I am taking this program. I don’t have any Black people working for me.” The lack of diversity was the problem.
Understanding women’s lack of representation in tech careers, stereotyping, and microaggressions were listed as some of the top career barriers in an internal study conducted by the Government of Canada. When Mills witnessed real examples of microaggressions, she recalls her shock.
“I thought I understood what discrimination was, what systemic barriers were, but when I actually physically saw it before my very eyes, it really shook me to my core,” Mills says.
These incidents gave Mills “a tiny little glimpse” into the everyday experiences of racialized and marginalized peoples.
Mills is a great example of how allies create pathways for marginalized peoples to move into roles that may otherwise be challenging to access. Over her career, she took every opportunity to affect systemic change within her organization by serving on Diversity and Inclusion committees, helping to create new human resource policies and procedures, and by facilitating awareness and cultural competencies programs.
Mills does what she can personally to open career pathways and opportunities for women. She recalls a highly educated colleague, a Black woman, who was unable to advance from an entry level position, perhaps due to bias and lack of representation among senior level staff. Mills was able to second her to a professional level position, which opened doors to her advancement.
Early in her career Mills remembers “a very disappointed young girl in senior high school learning that she needed math courses to get into a university engineering program—she had dropped these courses in grade 10!”
“It seemed to me that some systemic issues discouraged girls from pursuing STEM careers.”
suggest that women often shift away from math or science not only due to imposter syndrome but also feeling out of place or that there is no clear career path forward for them. According to Census Canada, in 2016 only 15.3% of bachelor’s degree holders who had studied in a STEM field were women.
Mills proudly referenced the story of Claudette McGowan, a woman of colour in cybersecurity that was celebrated by ICTC for Black History Month. Reflecting on McGowan’s story, Mills recognized that women of color have to work “three times harder” than their male colleagues. The challenges facing women, including women of colour, have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. From March 2020 to February 2021, women accounted for 53.7% of year-over-year employment losses in Canada between March 2020 to February 2021. Moreover, women of color make less than 1% of Founders, and many note barriers to accessing funding, networking, or mentorship opportunities.
For marginalized individuals looking for a leg up in the tech sector, Mills suggests seeking out mentors at all stages of their careers.
“I sought out [many] mentors. My first mentor was male,” she says. “I have had lots of different mentors in different roles.”
Mills suggests that we all should make ourselves available to mentor “young people as they grow and evolve.”
Mills encourages people to intentionally reflect on their successes at least once a year, as they move through their career. “You kind of constantly need to be checking back in. Take a reflection day… Think about what you’ve done over the year. Are you in sync? Are you balanced? What’s your health like? Reassess the next year ahead. Be intentional.”
Diversity Is an Economic Imperative
“Diversity and inclusion was once seen as a social responsibility. Now I think employers are understanding it’s an economic imperative too, that you can’t exclude a whole cohort of talent that can really help your company be competitive and grow.”
Mills notes that diversity and inclusion used to be seen as “the right thing to do” as opposed to the right thing for business and the economy. If companies want a competitive advantage both locally and globally, studies show that diverse executive teams are “15% more likely to experience above-average profitability” than companies without diverse executive teams. Diverse voices in leadership bring agility, adaptability, and critical new perspectives and help companies succeed in today’s world.
“The more diverse the team is, the more innovative and exciting it becomes because you have people who think differently,” Mills says. “They have different norms and experiences. With diverse teams, you come up with a much better product or outcome than if it’s a bunch of the same people who approach things from their same experience and knowledge base.”
Mills is optimistic that changes are underway and notes that equity and diverse groups should be situated as leaders in change making and allies are encouraged to provide support and opportunities to ensure equity and diversity groups is not left behind.
Elizabeth Mills is ICTC’s Associate Vice-President, Skills Excellence. Her portfolio includes workforce development programming and enterprise capacity building initiatives. Prior to joining ICTC in 2018, she served as a senior official with the Nova Scotia Government for over 30 years. Her last position was the Senior Executive Director of Skills and Learning at the Department of Labour and Advanced Education which included programming under the Canada/Nova Scotia Workforce Development agreement. She held this position after Nova Scotia completed its term Secretariat to the Atlantic Workforce Partnership. Prior to that she created the Nova Scotia Office of Immigration and served as the Executive Director. She did two tours with the Nova Scotia Treasury and Policy board. Prior to joining the Nova Scotia Government, Ms. Mills was the Director of Allocation and Agency Relations for the Metro Halifax United Way. She holds a Master of Public Administration from Dalhousie University.