CIPS tackles IT gender gap

Vanessa Padovani doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life. That’s okay for now as she’s only 14 years-old, but the good news is she is already exploring her career options.

Vanessa was one of 800 grade eight and nine girls who attended a recent Toronto show aimed at encouraging young women to consider careers in IT.

“I’m here to be influenced,” Vanessa said when asked what she hoped to get out of the show.

And she may very well have been, considering the heavy-hitter speakers line-up assembled for the event. Presenters at the show included representatives from Nortel, Cisco, RIM, Imperial Oil, IBM, the Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada and Deloitte Consulting. Also, more than 80 female IT pros sat with the girls over lunch in the hope of engaging in a little sandwich-time chitchat about IT careers.

The Canadian Information Processing Society sponsored the event. The professional organization is concerned about the glaring gender gap that exists both in the current crop of IT workers and within post-secondary tech courses. Some estimates peg the percentage of females in university computer science courses at 15 to 20, and other observers report numbers lower than that.

That’s a problem for simple gender equality reasons, but on a purely practical level it’s also a concern because Canadian companies can’t hire all the tech workers they need. A 2001 Software Human Resources Council/William M. Mercer Ltd. study found 57 per cent of surveyed companies had trouble hiring enough qualified IT professionals.

And while those companies often complain about the labour shortage, very few ever bother to take proactive corrective steps. It was great to see CIPS take a grassroots shot at ameliorating this issue, and kudos also go to those few companies which provided sponsorship dollars to make the show happen.

Of course, no one believes that a single one-day event will turn the gender gap on its head, even for those 800 girls actually in attendance, but it’s at least one positive step.

The ultimate source of the IT gender gap is a tough thing to nail down. Some believe societal pressure discourages girls from pursuing technology, others say change is gradual and female representation will rise over time.

And while not all 13-year-olds would agree with her, show attendee Caitlin Tanner said the issue comes down to a fundamental difference between boys and girls.

“Boys like to design things and build things,” she said. “All the guys around us talk about their Web pages and everything, and we don’t know what’s going on because we don’t think about that. We think about our hair, our make-up, the clothes we’re going to wear to school, our boyfriends. We don’t think about computers.”

But for one day, at least, Caitlin and 800 other girls did think about computers, and that alone justifies the time and expense required to stage this show.

I’m looking forward to the second-annual CIPS IT event for women.