A long and winding road for IT women

Roberta Fox has followed an unusual path to a career in IT.

As a telecommunications and technology industry analyst and senior partner at Fox Group Consulting in Markham, Ont., Fox’s vocational journey began in Ballymote, Ont., where at an early age she helped run her family’s farm and roadside fruit and vegetable business. Before moving into IT, she was also a semi-professional musician and a certified ceramics teacher and studio owner.

After taking business administration courses at Fanshawe College in London, Ont., she managed an office part-time before catching the “technology bug” and going back to Fanshawe to study electronics technology between 1980 and 1982. One of Fox’s first jobs after graduation was as a bench technician repairing circuit boards and installing computer, printer and datacoms. In 2000 she formed her first consulting company, Fox-Hoey Consulting.

Fox’s story resonated with other women who attended her recent talk entitled Women in IT: Yes, We Are Different, part of the Canadian Information Processing Society’s (CIPS) focus on women in IT and was hosted last month by the CIPS Grand Valley chapter in Kitchener, Ont.

The discussion examined why women are hesitant to pursue careers in technology. Many female attendees said family, friends or high school guidance counsellors advised them against it. As for Fox, the discouraging words she heard from her own guidance counsellor continue to haunt her. Fox said female enrolment rates in IT and engineering colleges and universities across Canada are the lowest since the mid-1960s.

“[Counsellors] are still discouraging girls and it is driving me nuts,” Fox said. That’s why she attends career days at public schools to encourage girls to consider working in IT. “It is [in public school] where we make career choices,” she said.

Numbers from the Software Human Resource Council (SHRC) also indicate a decrease in the percentage of women working in IT over the last few years. In March 2000, the total IT workforce was 480,758 of which 122,130 were women (25.4 per cent). In November 2004, the total IT workforce was 572,547, of which 130,593 were women (22.8 per cent).

Although Fox couldn’t explain why this is happening, she said the decline will not support future industry recruiting requirements. Also, she speculated that women may not pursue careers in IT because they don’t want to be seen as “geeks.”

Fox also highlighted the differences between men and women in IT. For example, for women, building relationships is very important, sometimes at the expense of their own needs and careers.

“I wish I could make young girls understand (that) we don’t have to be friends with everybody. Sometimes it is OK for people not to like us,” Fox said. Women also face the challenge of ensuring their managers are aware of their capabilities, goals and directions. But despite some differences, men and women in IT share many similarities, including the need to be challenged by different types of interesting work.

Fox noted that despite the challenges, there are also benefits to being a woman in IT. For example, she said most women possess natural people- and relationship-oriented skills that are increasingly in demand in IT and telecom circles. Fox said once women enter the IT field, they usually fill roles on the softer side of IT such as business analyst, project management and help desk.

“The glass ceiling [doesn’t exist] because we were women but because we as women didn’t know how to play the game of business,” such as dealing with company politics, she said.

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