Are we there yet, ladies of the IT industry? Uh, no

When I heard recently that a woman had broken a 500-year tradition, becoming the first female to join London’s famed Beefeater guards, I was reminded again of how far we’ve come in our quest to achieve gender parity. Women are breaking down boundaries and have more choices than ever before, even in the tough-to-crack science and technology professions. This is all very exciting and encouraging. So why am I feeling a little uneasy?

It seems there is wide acknowledgement of the lack of diversity in technology and its negative impact — especially in the fields of computer science and computer engineering. The greater concern is complacency. Do we believe that if one woman overcomes a barrier, the problems are resolved for all women? Have we grown so weary of the diversity issue that we’ve just decided to ignore it?

Like an anxious child on a long road trip, we keep asking, “Are we there yet?” Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that gender diversity in technical fields is more than a social issue. It’s a practical one. Demand for technology innovation is skyrocketing, while the number of people of both sexes gravitating to CS and CE is dwindling at an alarming rate. In 2007, CRA pegged the decline in overall enrolment in CS and CE bachelor’s programs in the U.S. and Canada at 40 per cent lower than four years ago.

Women comprise half the world’s population and half its workforce. They are also attaining greater financial independence and wield formidable consumer power. Yet today, the percentage of women granted CS bachelor’s degrees is lower than ever at 14 per cent. A report by Gartner recently observed, “Women influence or control upward of 80 per cent of consumer spending decisions; worldwide, men design upward of 90 per cent of IT products/services.” Isn’t it foolish to assume that we can ignore either the opportunity or impact that can be achieved by drawing more women into the profession?

Let’s assume that we all agree that getting more women involved is a good idea. I contend that one reason people have lost interest in this issue is a pre-occupation with a blame-game. There’s no shortage of opinions about why technology is a turn-off to women. Asked what they can do to make the profession more open to women, men often respond that if women would just do this-or-that differently, and stop being so sensitive, everything would be okay.

Rather than focus on who is at fault or worse, hope that if we just ignore the problem it will go away, all of us will be better served by agreeing to things men, women and organizations can do to change the demographics and culture of technology. Not because its part of a diversity program, but because it makes business sense for the organization, as an increasing number of talented women engage. With this collaborative effort, we might finally achieve a meritocracy, where people succeed based on their ability and accomplishments, not on their gender or ethnicity.

When that happens, I’d say, “We’re there!”