Choreographing multiple elements to move in harmony over a sheet of ice or through a robot's circuit board are just two of the talents Jessica Watson is quick to share.
Watson is a figure-skating coach and information technology professional who splits her time running a business, training at the rink and mentoring women and girls to take a lead role in developing their futures.
"I see myself as an encourager and sort of like a cheerleader. If there’s someone who’s interested in technology, I’m like, ‘Yes, go for it,’" Watson says. "It’s really useful in this day and age to have some technical chops and understand how computers are working, even if you're not coding day to day.
"It can really put you ahead of the game."
Watson currently sits on Tech Manitoba’s Maven committee, which exists to advance women in the province’s technology sector and organizes peer mentorship and support services.
The 30 year old got into the position after several years in the industry as a software developer and facilitating free workshops for hundreds of middle school-age girls on the basics of computer science and technology.
"We have no idea what the future is going to look like, because it’s being reinvented all the time. We do need girls and women at the forefront of that because otherwise it’s just going in one direction," Watson says.
"At some point, I just felt that this was a personal responsibility. I decided this was important to me and I’d take efforts where I could to move that needle forward."
“It can be really fun and satisfying learning coding and, especially, getting a program to work.” –Jessica Watson
Watson grew up in North Kildonan and East St. Paul, and found throughout high school she was drawn to both math and science. She decided to pursue engineering at the University of Manitoba, and while she didn't go down that career path, she was introduced to computer sciences and fell in love with the craft.
"It can be really fun and satisfying learning coding and, especially, getting a program to work," she says. "When you’re working on something for a while and it’s not quite right yet, and then you finally get it, and you click 'run' and it does what it’s supposed to do, it’s a very satisfying moment."
According to the most recent numbers available from Statistics Canada, Watson is part of an estimated 34 per cent of female Canadians who hold a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math — the STEM sector.
Women between the ages of 25 and 64 make up just 23 per cent of the workers in the sector.
A decade-long Statistics Canada study also found that fewer than half of first-year students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering or math programs are women, and over the course of a post-secondary STEM degree, 23 per cent of women will abandon their studies, compared to 12 per cent of men.
"I realized women do need that support to feel a little bit more comfortable coming into a field which typically is male-dominated," Watson says.
"Especially in a field like computer science, where it’s really impossible to know everything and there is so much to know."
She's familiar with the self-doubt the tech industry can breed. She struggled to trust her own abilities initially and deferred to others rather than take a lead role where she held expertise, she says.
"I sort of started to take myself out of the game and I actually see that with a lot of women," she says.
"Of the few women who do start in software development there are many who have moved on to other types of roles, like project management or business analyst… something other than coding.
"Just from my own experience of having that feeling of not being able to speak up or losing confidence in my intelligence, that’s where I really felt we need to help each other out."
“She is the epitome of an unsung hero. Jessica finds her joy in showing girls there’s a place for them in tech. She’s a born coach and her enthusiasm is contagious." –Kathy Knight
Watson's reputation as a champion for for female tech professionals has grown with each leadership position she's taken on — mentoring interns in the workplace, sitting on tech-sector advisory committees tasked with increasing female representation or leading the first Winnipeg chapter of Ladies Learning Code.
"She is the epitome of an unsung hero," says Kathy Knight, chief executive officer of Tech Manitoba. "Jessica finds her joy in showing girls there’s a place for them in tech. She’s a born coach and her enthusiasm is contagious.
"They leave switched on, with a broader perspective on the different ways they can engage in tech. And they see that tech is fun, too.
"She’s shaping a different vision of the future for girls in STEM."
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.