Silicon Valley-style sexism lives here, too
Don’t be ‘holier than thou,’ media boss Kirstine Stewart tells Canada’s tech sector
TORONTO — The sexism displayed in a controversial missive written by a now-fired male Google engineer is alive and well in Canada’s tech sector, says one of the country’s most prominent media bosses.
Former Twitter executive Kirstine Stewart wasn’t surprised by the content of the internal letter, which went viral over the weekend, and cautioned anyone north of the border from being “holier than thou.”
“Some of these opinions are borderless and I think that’s why we have to be really diligent,” said Stewart, also a former CBC executive who is now chief strategy officer with the online site Diply.
“I would caution anybody who thinks it’s much better in Canada.”
The widely shared letter, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” ascribed the tech industry’s gender inequality to biological differences and criticized Google for pushing diversity programs.
The engineer was reportedly fired, with Google CEO Sundar Pichai denouncing his screed for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes.”
“I hope people don’t look at (this) and go, ‘Well, that’s just the crazy U.S.,’” said Stewart, who joined Diply after spending three years at Twitter, first in charge of Canadian operations and then as head of North American media partnerships.
“We stand up a bit more and call each other on it because it’s closer, I guess, to the values that we talk about more publicly than they do in the States. But I don’t know that we’re performing any better.”
The stories coming out of Silicon Valley in the past few months have been stunning: steady claims of sexism and discrimination surrounding titans like the taxi-hailing app Uber and the venture fund 500 Startups.
Stewart said she’s experienced her share of incidents over a lengthy career and added it’s frustrating that things don’t seem to be moving forward enough.
The associate dean of outreach at the University of Waterloo is keen to be part of the solution.
Mary Wells, also professor of mechanical and mechatronics, recently won an award for encouraging women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and said “there’s absolutely been a culture shift” in recent decades.
The school’s engineering curriculum includes discussion of such issues, but she admitted more can be done to prepare both men and women for a new mindset.
“In first-year co-op a woman gets a job maybe before a male colleague, and right away he will say — and he’s not trying to be mean — ‘You must be their diversity hire,’” said Wells.
“The men can’t believe that she can be just as good as he is or even better, and she also doesn’t believe that she may be just as good as he is.”
Ontario cabinet minister Deb Matthews made a veiled reference to the Google engineer’s letter during a visit to Kitchener on Wednesday.
Matthews pointed out that all eight people working in the Ontario Digital Service Lab at Communitech are women. “So if anybody tries to tell you that women are not built for tech, just remember that. We’ll show them.”
Gender consultant Steph Guthrie of TechGirls Canada said there’s also more work to be done boosting racial diversity, with black, Indigenous and Latin people still sorely under-represented.
“We’re behind the U.S. in a lot of ways because we don’t even have the data most of the time,” said Guthrie. “You need to have those numbers in hand if you’re going to tackle the problem.”
Former Twitter executive Kirstine Stewart says the Canadian tech sector needs to be diligent about issues related to sexism and discrimination.