Canada: Saadia Muzaffar, founder of TechGirls Canada

Saadia Muzaffar, Oct 2015 Ms. Chatelaine

Age: 37
Occupation: Founder, TechGirls Canada; senior director of marketing, AudienceView
Born: Karachi, Pakistan
Lives: Toronto
Loves: Fly fishing, baklava, smashing the boys’ club

If you’re a woman pursuing a career in the notoriously male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), you’ve got your work cut out for you. Just 10 to 12 percent of all STEM workers are female, and roughly half of them will eventually quit their jobs because of hostile working conditions. Throw in endless reports of Silicon Valley sexism and Twitter-troll misogyny, and you realize how tough it is to be a woman in the digital age. But Saadia Muzaffar is tired of hearing that girls aren’t made for math and science. “[Women] are told in 100 million ways that they don’t belong.” So she started TechGirls Canada to promote the education and empowerment of women in STEM.

Born in Pakistan, the eldest of four daughters, to an engineer father and a home­maker mother, Saadia was intrigued by numbers and machines from a very young age. Someday, she thought, she might even work alongside her dad, who taught her about the inner workings of light bulbs at age four. “He raised us girls in a very gender-neutral way,” she says. “He would say, ‘They can do anything that a boy can do,’ and he meant it.”

Related: Why there are still far too few women in science and engineering

But choruses of “girls don’t do this, girls don’t do that” coming from all directions pushed Saadia away from the sciences she loved. Instead, after immigrating to Toronto at age 19, she attended Sheridan College for business administration, then entered the finance sector. After three years, Saadia was restless and decided to take a run at tech, landing at Toronto start-up incubator Research Innovation Commercialization (RIC) Centre. In three years at RIC, Saadia says, she worked with more than 100 tech start-ups and encountered fewer than five female employees. She also found herself struggling to establish a close network of female colleagues. She realized she needed to help move the needle. “Nobody around me was willing to ask the difficult questions,” Saadia says. That’s how, in 2011, TechGirls Canada was born.

A not-for-profit hub, TechGirls aims to fight institutional barriers that prevent women of all races, abilities and sexual orientations from entering tech by advocacy, promoting funding and setting up programming. As head of partnerships, Saadia collaborates with businesses like Microsoft and Accenture to shift gender ratios from the inside out. “We’re not about single prescriptions for HR manuals,” she says. TechGirl’s first campaign, Strength in Numbers, located 375 organizations across Canada working to bring more women into STEM careers and leadership roles.

In addition to her work with TechGirls, Saadia holds down a demanding full-time job as a marketing director at the software firm AudienceView and maintains a quippy Twitter feed complete with insightful (and sometimes incendiary) commentary on the tech industry. “When you’re a young girl, you’re not looking to pick fights with the world,” she says. “But take chances — become a different person than who you’re told to be.”

September’s Ms. Chatelaine: Monica Adair, Canada’s top young architect from Saint John
August’s Ms. Chatelaine: Ebonnie Rowe, Canada’s answer to misogyny in the music industry 
July’s Ms. Chatelaine: Marilou, author, blogger and cook who overcame anorexia

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