Women in technology

Marie-Jade Lucier, Salma Zaghloul, Audrey Coulombe, Elianne Rochefort and Coline Delbaere

Coline Delbaere, Immersive Experience Producer at the PHI Multipurpose Center, talks to four inspiring young women. Together, they lift the veil on ways to encourage and inspire the representation of women in the technology field.

The PHI Cultural and Artistic Centre has partnered with mobile video game development studio Square Enix Montreal, educational partner of The INFINITEx experience, as well as Concertation Montreal and its Montreal Movement Les Filles & le code, an initiative aimed at encouraging women to take an interest in careers and training in technology.

Based on a common desire to promote art and high technology to young people, this collaboration aims to highlight the importance of gender parity in the design of technological experiences.

In order to inspire more women to join the ranks of the technology sector, Marie-Jade Lucier, Salma Zaghloul, Audrey Coulombe and Elianne Rochefort, four young female collaborators between the ages of 18 and 25, identified by the Montreal Movement Les Filles & le code with the support of Square Enix Montreal, confided in us about the path of women in technology and the different issues that are related to it.

Although Quebec has been affirming its values of equality between men and women for many years, gender diversity in organizations still seems to be a hot topic. In the information technology (IT) industry, women accounted for only 20% in 2017, according to data collected by the Claire-Bonenfant Chair at Université Laval and TECHNOCompétences. This finding raises various questions that deserve to be explored further: what are the barriers to entry, retention and advancement of women within IT industry organizations in Quebec?

In order to provide some answers to these questions, PHI and Square Enix Montreal invited young women with a passion for art and technology to discuss with PHI’s immersive experience producer, Coline Delbaere.

This conversation has been transcribed and edited by Louvia Lafrance for clarity and length.

PRESENTATIONS

COLINE DELBAERE: I have a degree in political science. Due to my previous experiences in a decentralized embassy department, a theater company, a record production company and filming, I consider myself a very versatile person. Since 2017, I have been a producer of immersive experiences and work with actors from a multitude of artistic disciplines. In 2018, I was appointed as a full member of the Digital Experiences commission of the Centre National du Cinéma, France. In 2019, I joined the PHI team with the aim of participating in the growth of new forms of storytelling and I work skillfully in the production of complex interactive projects. I approach these with a global vision and I always keep in mind the evolution of the conditions of exploitation of creations as well as the meeting with the public.

AUDREY: I studied fashion design in college. That’s where I learned about smart clothing. So I became more interested in the electronic, computer and digital side of things. I am currently working at Vestechpro, a research and innovation center in clothing. I am also studying Computation Arts, a program offered at Concordia University that combines art and technology in general.

MARIE-JADE: I am a fashion design student. I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and I also took courses at UQAM in computer and electronic systems. I am particularly interested in connected clothing. I am fascinated by the different ways of combining fashion, clothing and technology.

ELIANNE: I am a student at Collège de Bois-de-Boulogne. I am currently doing a technique in multimedia integration. It’s a fairly general program that touches on everything in digital: programming, Web, video games, graphic design, UX, etc. I am also a member of the Women in Tech group. This group aims to encourage women to get involved in the digital world. We are currently working on the creation of the website, to disseminate the testimonies of female professionals in the industry. I consider it a very nice project and the mission is important.

SALMA: I am a student in Natural Sciences at Collège de Maisonneuve. Since I started robotics when I was twelve, I also have experience in the technology field. At the beginning, I was working more on developing my entrepreneurial skills, making business plans, presenting our team projects in robotics, etc. Later on, I became more interested in the technical side of things. So I did more mechanics, especially in three-dimensional modeling. I then turned to programming. My favorite was Python. It’s object-oriented programming (OOP) a little more specific to artificial intelligence.

CONVERSATION

COLINE DELBAERE: Marie-Jade, do you know Audrey and the activities of the company she works for?

MARIE-JADE: Yes, in fact, I also worked for two years at Vestechpro. That’s where I met Audrey. It is also thanks to this research center that I discovered that it was possible to mix science, clothing and fashion.

COLINE DELBAERE: Salma, it’s interesting to see that you have gone through all the layers in depth. Is there a project you’ve worked on that has particularly stood out for you so far?

SALMA: The summer of my 4th year of high school, I participated in an internship at the Centre de Recherche Informatique de Montréal (CRIM), we were trying to enable the robot to be able to detect different components in the field and make decisions by itself. The goal was to have our Python program detect the different components and send information to the Java program, which controls the robot’s motor skills.

COLINE DELBAERE: As far as connected clothing is concerned, is the objective that it be functional or is it more with the objective of using it as an artistic medium?

AUDREY: I’m open to everything. I prefer projects that are more artistic. However, with my job, I get to work on projects that are more practical and functional. I like to do both. I find that designing functional projects provides some knowledge that can be useful when developing artistic projects. For example, breathing strips can be interesting for art projects as well as in garments that collect biometric data. It comes from the trend of connected self-measurement.

COLINE DELBAERE: I’m guessing that basic connected wearables allow you to observe body heat?

AUDREY: There are some that do that, among other things. There are a lot of devices that can be tailored to the body and look at temperature, breathing, or heart rate, for example.

COLINE DELBAERE: How do you feel as a woman in this world? I recently read an article that made me laugh. It explained that until the 1970s, the entire computer industry was almost exclusively reserved for women. This was because during World War II, men were on the front lines and women were behind the scenes. All the early monolithic computers, ballistic codes and enemy codes were analyzed by women. Today, the technology community is 80 percent male and 20 percent female. To me, there’s nothing to explain that, other than discrimination, or just a lack of desire to get involved.

SALMA: It’s funny you should say that. In seventh grade, I was working on an end-of-year project for the international program. At the end of the year, you had to be able to answer a problem and find a solution. Being immersed in the world of robotics, science and technology, I quickly noticed how underrepresented women were in engineering. So I did some research and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the first person to develop a computer language was a British woman. If I remember correctly, it was Ada Lovelace. Some theories about this lack of diversity explain that there is a lack of concrete female success stories in science and engineering.

I quickly noticed how underrepresented women were in engineering.

MARIE-JADE: I think there is definitely a lack of female role models that allow us to see that computer science can be an interesting field. I think the way it’s represented now is not necessarily inspiring.

SALMA: Well, the project I was working on was to create introductory engineering and programming workshops. So I had reserved the school’s computers and created publicity for the event. About 15 people showed up and I was really surprised. To prove the success of my project, I had to collect data at the end of the workshop. I found that 67% of the students who showed up were interested in pursuing this field.

COLINE DELBAERE: Once a woman decides to enter this world, she will naturally surround herself with more women. At my first festival in Venice, I worked only with men, where I was. One of our projects had been selected and among the complete selection, there were two young Danish women. It was their graduation project and it ended up in a category A festival. Everything was very well thought out, it was a beautiful project. Users had to place themselves in a hospital bed with a virtual reality (VR) headset and play the role of a sibling. An embodied cognition representation was also performed and so once you were wearing the VR headset, you could see scenes that represented you in the bed and you could see your own legs. Because nothing was gendered, it was impossible to know if you were a man or a woman. Depending on what was happening in the digital virtual world, they would touch people at certain times to make the virtual reality optimal. There were also certain smells, whether it was a glass of beer or a candle going out to represent death. Some things were very evocative. When you looked at the different credits of the project, their name appeared in almost every position. They had done almost everything themselves and they actually started their own company called MANND. All of their lectures are amazing and I think it brings a certain sensitivity to their creations. All this to say that, for me who used to work in a mostly male company, the fact that I could see their creations really impressed me. I realized the importance of having female roles in our business.

All this to say that, for me, who worked in a company composed mostly of men, the fact that I could see their achievements really impressed me. I realized the importance of having female roles in our field.

ELIANNE: Precisely, Women in Tech collects several testimonies of women coming from different fields in the technological environment. Since there are new branches that are constantly being created, we try to collect as many testimonies as possible in order to educate those who are trying to choose a program or to motivate some to stay in digital by finding their place.

COLINE DELBAERE: This is one of your initiatives, right?

ELIANNE: No, it’s one of my professors at Bois-de-Boulogne College who received funding from the Ministry of Higher Education. So I’m working on the project with four other girls. We have already done some filming with women from the community. The goal is also to go to schools and show young people how things are done and to open up new opportunities for them.

How do you feel about this? Being a woman in a man’s environment.

COLINE DELBAERE: That’s a good question. The IHP Center is predominantly female, so that’s fine. However, I feel it a lot in my collaborations. On a daily basis, I sometimes hear things that are a little strange. I am a producer and I often have to talk about money. I have already traveled a lot with a director during the realization of a project. When our partner in France would start talking about money, he would turn to him without even realizing it, simply because he was a 50-year-old man and I am a young woman. So you have to go back to the conversation and tell yourself that just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you can’t talk about these things.

When our partner in France started talking about money, he would turn to him without even realizing it, just because he was a 50-year-old man and I’m a young woman.

AUDREY: Has it gotten better in the last decade? Have women taken their rightful place? Are we on the right track or do you think there’s still a lot of work to be done?

COLINE DELBAERE: I find it difficult to have a global vision. The artistic milieu is often more open-minded. These are people who want to tell stories, to change things using one medium or another. Art is generally a mode of communication. From there, I want to say yes. But the field I am in is biased. My role at the Centre National du Cinéma et de l’Image Animée allows me, however, to have an overview. I receive all the XR files, both in writing, development and production, every two months. It allows me to see how many projects are being carried by women. There are women on the projects, but there are relatively more female writers and directors than female coders, or tech roles, for example. There are things we don’t see. On the INFINI project we worked on, there are vignettes that vary from 45 seconds to a minute and a half and they all have a theme. They allow us to meet characters and they are divided into several chapters according to the narrative and, at the beginning, it was the subject of a larger montage with fifteen-minute episodes. They’re called hotspots. My favorite hotspot in this project is in the last chapter and talks about the first 100% female ISS spacewalk. It was very beautiful. So there are two female astronauts in the shot, who tell us their perspective on this historic moment, which was not initially planned. In the end, I watched them all a lot as I was testing the project in production, and that one hotspot, I realized, was introduced by a male voice-over, for 30 seconds. Which made sense in the context of the episode because there was a transition, but not in the context of a hotspot. It made it seem like they needed a male spokesperson and that bothered me. There are still things that men don’t see right away and they need to be pointed out. In this case, the director was not difficult to convince at all. It took two seconds of debate for him to agree to make the changes in the edit.

SALMA: Adding women to a team increases the diversity of opinions and perspectives. In my opinion, it’s a performance lever for a project because there are angles that women can see that men can’t, and vice versa. I think it helps to create more inclusive projects. How do you think we could welcome more women into the world of science and technology? What drew you to the field?

Adding women to a team increases the diversity of opinions and perspectives. In my opinion, this is a performance lever for a project since there are angles that women can see while men cannot, and vice versa.

COLINE DELBAERE: It’s been a bit of a strange sequence because I was originally interested in the performing arts beyond technology. I worked as a multidisciplinary programmer, in a production company, in theater companies and on shoots, including one in 360°. My first one was seven years ago, for Igloofest. A 360° camera was placed on the helmet of a person moving around the festival. I might as well say that it could cause gagging among some users. Finally, I joined a company that was starting to get interested in the production of creative content in 360°. First, for the creation of documentaries, because ARTE had created a platform that could accommodate 360° content, but lacked material. Then, fiction projects naturally followed. So we started adding interactive, working with real-time game engines and working with teams from the video game industry. Surprisingly, it all came together. We then brought in theater directors to work on these projects. They had the tools to occupy the space differently and choreograph the characters’ movements. Finally, scenographers helped us to create the sets.

MARIE-JADE: Concretely, what do you do at the PHI Center as a producer?

COLINE DELBAERE: The role of a producer varies according to the field. In my case, it’s finding funding, it’s a lot of understanding a project and how to make it possible. Then you have to oversee the production, do the planning and manage the teams. Namely, the investment funds that are interested in this field are often innovation funds. So we have to explain to them what’s new in the project and whether we’re going to have to develop it ourselves. I’ve really had to immerse myself in technology to better understand the projects I’m working on.

MARIE-JADE: Do you make the decision on a project or is it the whole team together?

COLINE DELBAERE: We still need to be several. In our team, we have an executive producer who has a vision, who has a particular sensitivity. We’ll try to make sure that the project converses in one way or another with the company’s strategies. I have a partner with whom I have been working for almost five years now, his name is Thomas, he was a developer when I was working in Paris. We then came here together. Very often, we brainstorm together. We evaluate what is possible and what is not. He tries to understand my constraints and I try to understand his. We really try to have a vision for the project. Once we agree, we make a proposal to the creative committee with all the important information to consider, so artistic, technical and financial. We have to explain our strategy and all the steps of the project. Then I find myself doing completely absurd things that a producer doesn’t do in the first place. When I think of the project on the International Space Station, it was difficult for us at first to imagine how to position them according to the user scenarios to better distribute the centers of attention. I ended up going there and observing. I would go from one scenario to another, leaving what I had in my pockets to create my own reference points, like Tom Thumb: my keys, my shoes, my phone, my jacket, etc. Thomas adapted the positions live via the project server. It made my colleagues laugh. I wasn’t prepared to do that. The space is huge, I had trouble positioning myself until we said, “Well, we know the constraints, we need an algorithm.”

ELIANNE: You seem to have a lot of exciting projects. Do you have any goals for the future?

COLINE DELBAERE: At the beginning, I was really restless and I went from one discipline to another. After three or four years in immersive, I started to think that maybe I wanted to do something else. So I was doing research, but I still thought I had created some sort of expertise for a growing field. It probably would have taken me longer to become a film producer, to collaborate on projects that are so successful at festivals. Whereas here, we’re in a newer field, the culture catches on, or catches up very quickly. You just have to have the opportunity to experience a few groundbreaking projects, to say “ah, we can go there!”. Since I learned about topics that others were a little less interested in, I managed to become more comfortable in my field quickly. If I were to change my position today, I would probably find it a bit overwhelming in the end. There’s so much to do in our field, it’s always changing. You don’t have much time to get bored.

AUDREY: So I was wondering, I understand that your projects touch on different disciplines. How do you manage to deal with the multidisciplinary aspect on your own? For example, when I was studying fashion design, I had to create a smart garment in collaboration with a team of another colleague specialized in computer science. We found that this caused a lot of problems. We didn’t really speak the same language. We had different technical terms. There were problems at that level, but also at the level of vision. There are many things that are difficult to predict in advance, but that happen when you work on the project.

COLINE DELBAERE: I totally understand. There’s really a contrast that’s visible. On the one hand, it’s extremely interesting because we have teams working together that are complementary. So there is a very rich aspect to this. On the other hand, the lack of a common vocabulary can really become a constraint, even when the vision is shared. That’s a fact and it’s to be expected.

ELIANNE: Is there a particular strategy to overcome these problems?

COLINE DELBAERE: I have one. But it’s a bit radical (laughs). My strategy would be to lock everyone in the same room at the time of prototyping. That’s a really good time to do that. Often the problems come from the fact that the parties haven’t understood each other’s constraints and so there’s a blockage somewhere. In a less radical way, I think it takes good extensionists and you should not hesitate to say, “So here, in other words, what you’re telling me is that…”, to make sure that one’s understanding is also the other’s.

SALMA: I feel like as a producer, you really have a holistic view of projects and the immersive experience.

COLINE DELBAERE: That’s kind of my strength and my constraint. That is, yes, there is a vision. But then, once you’re in the project, you also have to understand what all the steps are to bring it to fruition, while maintaining the overall vision and good team cohesion. I often use this metaphor, but a project is like a team wedding. Sometimes we haven’t bothered to live together before we get married. You really have to understand each other’s roles and responsibilities and keep the communication honest. Every project is really different.

SALMA: You were talking about embodiment earlier, is that one of the perspectives to consider in the future?

COLINE DELBAERE: Yes, absolutely. The field is still quite complicated. It is still very free. I read an article that explained that in virtual reality, when your body was poorly represented or not represented at all, the memories you would create while being in the project were relatively similar to the memories you create when you dream, when the perception of your body is altered.

ELIANNE: Actually, at school we’re starting a small exhibit, both interactive and immersive. We’d really like to have that interactive side built in, but we’ve never really touched on that. I’ve done immersive projects before, but we were the ones guiding them, they were walking through our world. This interactive side is new to us, so we still have a lot of trial and error ahead of us. We have to tell them what to do to make it work, but at the same time they have to have the choice to do it in a fluid way. It takes a lot of thinking and brainstorming.

COLINE DELBAERE: Absolutely. Letting the user’s body mobilize is already extremely interesting, but it takes user experience (UX) to guide them intuitively into this universe. To make sure that he appropriates the codes of encounters with the work as naturally as possible.

What is your installation project, Elianne? I am curious.

ELIANNE: The theme would be “blood diamond”. It’s a controversy that’s not talked about much. There is the beautiful side of the diamond that unites two people at weddings, for example. However, everything behind it, which is not really talked about, is much less beautiful. In Africa, for example, they are sometimes harvested to finance war conflicts, human trafficking, etc. So we’ll be able to play with this contrast, the visual will be interesting. But it’s still being designed. The interactive side is still to be developed. There will be a small room with projectors and Kinect devices for the exhibition. It’s in development, but it’s going to be really cool.

COLINE DELBAERE: It’s great to play with the contrast of these two worlds. I think there’s a lot to do with that. Do you want to involve the user in the interaction? We had the same thought for an exhibition on inclusive sexuality. At one point, without wanting to, we realized that we were putting the visitor in a position that was not necessarily comfortable, because we were making them feel guilty. We asked ourselves in what position we really wanted to put the viewer. This helps in the management of the design, the interaction, etc. It helps you know how you’re going to get through it.

ELIANNE: We want them to understand the conflict, but not feel guilty about it. We want people to become aware of it and realize the magnitude of the issue by putting them both feet in it. We try to integrate them and make them feel part of the work. We want to let them guide the work in a fluid way, but we’re not sure how to do that yet.

COLINE DELBAERE: It’s through interaction that we access information, ultimately. The girls from MANND that I was talking about earlier, they did a project that plays on the contrast between fashion and the textile industry in Bangladesh. It’s really poignant and it would be a good reference for your project, I think. The Madeleine de Proust effect, too. Let’s say you take an object and it triggers a memory; you generate information and you slowly put your user in the skin of the character and what constitutes it. You create empathy.

In Marie-Jade’s view, the lack of inspiring and engaging female role models in colleges is a barrier to young female students’ involvement in the IT industry. In order to reverse the stereotypes that often influence the career choices of young female students, more fun and stimulating IT-related experiences should be promoted in the Quebec school system.

To address this under-representation of women, Elianne is currently working on the creation of a website that collects fascinating testimonials from women in various fields of technology. She hopes this initiative will help young people make an informed decision about their career direction.

Audrey also shares this desire to increase the presence of young women in the digital world. It is precisely by providing more visibility to female role models that the “male” culture in IT can be mitigated.

This reshuffling of the predominant figures in the field could only be beneficial according to Salma, a student in Natural Sciences, who says that adding female staff to a work team increases the diversity of opinions and encourages the expression of various perspectives.

Founded and based in Montreal, Canada, PHI is a multidisciplinary organization positioned at the intersection of contemporary art and technology.