Athena industry initiative aims to train 500 B.C. women in AI

Athena Pathways Consortium will be training 500 B.C. women in AI, machine learning and data science for at least 18 months | Credit: Shutterstock

What happened: Industry group launching new program to expand artificial intelligence expertise for hundreds of B.C. women

Why it matters: Initiative will try to improve gender balance in male-dominated tech sector

B.C.’s artificial intelligence community wants to get smarter about correcting its considerable gender imbalance.

The Athena Pathways Consortium officially launched Thursday (March 5) with the goal of training 500 B.C. women in AI, machine learning and data science over the next 18 months.

“It’s the almost hidden costs of not doing this that are particularly pernicious,” said AInBC executive director Steve Lowry, whose industry association is spearheading the initiative backed by a mix of private sector and post-secondary players.

“When you look at organizations that aren’t gender-balanced or diverse enough, they underperform.”

Athena Pathways sees the University of B.C., Simon Fraser University, the B.C. Institute of Technology and Northeastern University’s new Vancouver campus developing courses and workshops for women at high school and post-secondary levels as well as those already in the workforce.

While the initial phase of the program, budgeted at $682,000, will offer 300 scholarships and is set to run 18 months, Lowry said Athena Pathways could extend beyond that as it hunts for additional donors.

In addition to AInBC and the aforementioned post-secondary institutions, Athena Pathways is receiving support from Vancouver-based Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster, D-Wave Systems Inc., Metaoptima Technology Inc. and Teck Resources Inc. (TSX:TECK.B), among others.

B.C.’s technology sector is among the most male-dominated in Canada.

Women account for 18.3% of Vancouver’s tech workforce, according to a 2019 report from real estate services firm CBRE Group Inc.

That’s the second-largest gender disparity among Canadian cities, tied with Saskatoon.

The only Canadian city to fare worse in the rankings is Victoria, where women compose 15% of the technology workforce.

The B.C. Tech Association unveiled 15 recommendations for the tech sector in December 2019 in a bid to create an ecosystem much better at recruiting and retaining women.

Among the recommendations curated from a series of workshops, panels and roundtables:

·Set targets and publish the results. Ask if your employee diversity mirrors that of your customers.

·Leverage your team’s network: ask women in your organizations to identify people they’ve worked with in the past and would like to work with again.

·Ask yourself if talent is promotable before someone takes parental leave – consider promoting before they take leave.

·Put in place salary bands for each role, track and communicate pay vs. industry averages (compa ratios). Establish and enforce minimum salaries for each role.

“Our objective is to make this easy for people by giving concrete, actionable suggestions,” B.C. Tech Association CEO Jill Tipping told Business in Vancouver in December.

“We’re not trying to be one size fits all. We’re trying to give you a menu of options and challenge you to find at least one that would work for your business.”