'It’s really shocking': U of T alumna and entrepreneur on the tech industry's lack of gender diversity

Photo of Huda Idrees
Huda Idrees is the founder and CEO of digital medical records startup Dot Health. She will appear on a Women-in-Tech panel Tuesday as part of U of T's Entrepreneurship Week (photo by Pam Lau)

Huda Idrees thought she entered the male-dominated tech industry with her eyes wide open. But the University of Toronto engineering alumna says she was totally unprepared for what she found.   

“I’ve actually been in situations where my employer has tried to pay a male subordinate of mine more money than me,” says Idrees, who has worked for several Toronto startups before launching one of her own. 

“It’s really shocking.”

Yet, while tech's frat-boy reputation has been well-documented, including at giants like Facebook and Uber, Idrees doesn’t believe there’s anything particularly unique about her chosen industry. 

Rather, she says tech’s gender diversity problems have more to do with the sector’s rising social and economic clout since all powerful industries tend “to be dominated by people who are already in power – and for the last thousand or so years, it’s been men.”

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Idrees, who is the founder and CEO of digital medical records company Dot Health, is one of four panellists participating in a Women in Tech event tomorrow night at U of T’s OnRamp co-working space, part of the university’s Entrepreneurship Week. 

The event is being hosted by U of T Mississauga’s ICUBE accelerator – one of several U of T entrepreneurship hubs – and information giant Thomson Reuters. The other panelists are Julie Roussin and Leyla Samiee of Thomson Reuters, and Sonia Kang, an assistant professor in the department of management at U of T Mississauga with a cross-appointment at the Rotman School of Managem ent.

Idrees also has a message for men in the tech business who are pushing back against the #MeToo movement: Get educated about the issues – and quick. 

“You can’t afford to be ignorant today,” she says.

U of T News caught up with Idrees to learn more about her experiences, and how she’s trying to do things differently at her startup.

There was a report out recently from the Information and Communications Technology Council that said women only account for about a quarter of all tech jobs in Canada, despite representing half the overall workforce, and the further you move up the ranks the smaller that number gets. Why is this industry such a boy’s club?

There’s a bit of an oscillation within industries once they become more lucrative. If you go back to the beginnings of computer programming, there were a lot of compiling engines and a lot of menial work – and a lot of that work was actually done by women. So I disagree with those who say there’s some sort of predisposed genetic or biological condition that keeps women away from tech. I think it’s because technology is one of the most – if not the most – lucrative industry that we know of. And whenever we have industries with more power, it tends to be more dominated by people who are already in power – and for the last thousand or so years, it’s been men.

So because tech has become such an important industry, with so much focus, it’s brought to the fore, or even concentrated, the inequality that exists throughout the job market? 

Yes. I would compare it to any other industry that’s highly lucrative, with lots of high-paying jobs. If you look on Wall Street or Bay Street, I’m sure you would find similar if not worse representation of women. Sometimes we talk about tech as though it’s this special snowflake. But it’s mimicking a lot of trends in other industries as well. I wrote a piece in the Globe about workplace culture and how it’s biased against women, and a lot of the responses I got were actually from the medical and legal industries, which are also high-paying, lucrative industries. So I think tech is seeing a lot of the same things. On top of that – this is somewhat related – tech is built on top of a lot of venture capital and venture capital has traditionally been in the hands of men. 

U of T Engineering has one of the highest levels of enrolment for female students in Canada. But engineering is a field that has traditionally been male-dominated. What’s been your personal experience? 

I’m a huge fan of U of T Engineering, so I will give [the faculty] a lot of credit for doing a really good job on this. Dean Cristina Amon has been really phenomenal in terms of how many women are being accepted and graduate. The numbers have really risen over the past several years. As for my experience from within the engineering community – as someone who was a complete outsider, as an immigrant to Canada and an international student – I didn’t see the [gender disparity] issue as much as I see it in tech. That’s despite the fact only 18 per cent of engineers were women in my year, which is very low. 

I think it’s now over 40 per cent.

Which is incredible – and Dean Amon has a lot to do with that. But I actually didn’t see the problem so much in engineering because the community was very supportive and welcoming to me. So it was a bit of shock when I entered tech. I wasn’t prepared for how much worse it was. I knew I had operated in a male-dominated industry – or faculty, at least – so I figured it would be similar. But what I found in tech, which is also the “real world,” was that it was much harder for me, as a woman, to ask for, and receive, higher salaries. I’ve actually been in situations where my employer has tried to pay a male subordinate of mine more money than me. It’s really shocking. Now, I raise venture capital for my own company, Dot Health, but when I walk into an investor’s office, they haven’t seen people who look like me come and ask for money. Historically, the biggest [tech] success stories haven’t been built by people who look like me. In their eyes, the biggest successes have been people like Mark Zuckerberg [Facebook] and Evan Spiegel [Snapchat], who are privileged, upper class men. But I don’t fit that mould. So I’ve found it harder to make the case for why I should be entrusted with money and why I would have a bigger return than my equivalent male counterpart. And it’s not like people have something written on them that tells you they’re going to discriminate against you. You just have to figure it out. 

That must be incredibly frustrating.

It is. But it’s hard to quantify. You can’t give people a survey and have them say: “On a scale of one to 10, I was most or least likely to have discriminated against you.” So it’s a lot of feeling the room out. But it's hard because you have to learn to read people while also being a young person trying to navigate the world of venture capital. I started noticing certain red flags. I would walk into a room and it would be full of men, but I have an all-female team. So when I put up our team slide, some of them would have an aversion it. 

They would actually say something to you?

Yup. My chief technology officer has this incredible pedigree. She comes from Shopify. She’s a leader in the community when it comes to the technology that we build on. And yet, when we put her name on the slide, the questions we get are: “Has she led teams before? Is she actually good?” That’s versus when I had a male co-founder shortly after I launched the company and I never got those questions. It’s an apples-to-apples comparison so I feel like I can speak to that quite confidently.

So, basically, you walk into a room and discover you’re facing an obstacle a male entrepreneur coming in behind you doesn't have to deal with. Do you think that’s held your company back in any way?

I’ve spent my entire working career in tech so I know what I’m up against. It’s not so much discovery of bias as it is a confirmation. What I’m focused on more than anything is numbers. The reason people invest in you is because they want a return, so you need to convince them you can deliver a bigger return on investment than somebody else. For better or worse, pushing past the gender discrimination and actually making a business case has been the way I’ve gone about it. I believe Big Data in health care is a hugely untapped market, and that we’re uniquely poised to excel in it. That’s really my go-to argument. I’m not trying to highlight the fact that my company is women-founded or women-led. I’m trying to focus on the things that should matter the most to venture capitalists. So they can be prejudiced against me, but if I can promise them a 20 times return and prove I deliver it, I’m in a better spot.

In addition to issues of equality, there’s also the question of what we, as society and customers, are missing by not having as many women in these industries and in positions of power.

The business case for diversity, basically. There’s a lot of conversation about that – and I do agree with a lot of it. But there’s a weird split to this discussion. It’s been proven again and again that if we have more diverse teams, we perform better as businesses. There’s studies going back a decade. But that doesn’t seem to have changed anything for companies today. Clearly that’s not getting us anywhere. So the split is a moral question: Is the only reason we should have women or minorities in the workplace because it’s better for business, or should we help them get those positions because of equality? I think those are two completely different things. We always say, “Oh, we should do it because it’s better for business.” But what if it wasn’t? Would we say, “Women are bad for business so we should just keep them out?” 

So we shouldn’t be making that argument? 

I want us to move toward a conversation about whether we’re keeping women out on purpose. I think that becomes a much more interesting conversation because people start to question it morally. It’s about rights and equality. I would love to have that conversation. At some point, the businesses of the future will be different from the businesses of today, and one of my top reasons for having women be part of technology teams, and particularly emerging technology teams, is that the technology will impact everybody alive. So if you’re excluding them, we’re going to build technology that’s biased against a certain group because they weren’t involved in designing it. Think about virtual reality, which makes some women nauseous but doesn’t have that effect on men. Or facial recognition technology that doesn’t recognize the faces of Black people – these are things that will affect us in a major way. I’m more interested in involving a representative group in our team so we can build a technology that’s going to be better for the world.

This whole discussion in tech is now happening against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, and some prominent people are warning of a backlash. How do you see this playing out?

What I think is interesting about the #MeToo movement is the changes it’s bringing – the good that’s coming from it – rather than the social media frenzy it’s causing. Men who say they don’t want to work with women [because they're afraid of being accused] are completely missing the point. It’s a little bit juvenile. I don’t fear a backlash so much as I do men self-selecting out of these conversations – which is really just about a willingness to learn and be educated. If someone were to say Black Lives Matter is too prominent and I’m going to be discriminated against as someone who’s against Black people, that has more to do with the people self-selecting out than the movement. I wouldn’t change anything about the #MeToo movement. But I would change the attitude of people who feel like they're being attacked so they seek out education. You can’t afford to be ignorant today. 

Now that you’re running your own company, what steps are you taking to build an inclusive, forward-thinking organization? 

What we’re starting to be really conscious about is who we hire and how we bring them on, and what values and principles we set for the company. We’re slow to hire and quick to fire. We have actually let two people go in the short period of time we’ve been around, which is coming up to a year now. The reason we did that is we’re very focused on crafting a culture that ensures people aren’t making their teammates uncomfortable. We actually call it – pardon my swearing – the no asshole rule. During hiring, you have to pass the no-asshole test, basically. That’s not so much a culture fit as it is checking references and asking how prospective employees fit with their former teammates – and then having them come in and work for us for a few days. It’s very easy for someone to act nice during an interview for an hour, but it’s a lot harder to change your behaviour for a day or two.

For U of T students, particularly women, who are curious about starting their own company or working at a startup, but might be turned off by what they hear about the industry – what advice would you offer them?

It’s the reasons for staying versus the reasons for quitting. I think I’ve been given a lot of reasons to quit tech. But the reason I stay – and this is what I tell everyone who is considering joining – is that I want to be able to build a better world for the future. And the fastest way to do that is by building technology. I think that’s quite motivating. The other side of that is living in a community with technology that does not help you or is designed against you. That’s a scary alternative. There’s tons of problems that people who have been shut out of this industry can solve – and you can be one of them. 

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