Conference encourages girls to go for IT

Lasha Dekker says it was mostly chance that led her to a career in IT — but that’s not stopping her from encouraging young women to consider working in the same field.

Dekker, vice-president of developer and platform evangelism for Microsoft Canada Co., was a keynote speaker at last month’s Explore IT Conference, a one-day event that introduced grade nine girls to career opportunities in IT. Conference organizers estimated around 500 students attended the event, held on Feb. 25 at the Alberta College of Art & Design, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Mount Royal College and the University of Calgary, all in Calgary.

Participants had a choice of several hands-on sessions where they could try everything from building their own computer network to generating computer animations or designing a Web site.

Dekker noted that today only about 20 per cent of graduates from college or university computer science programs are women.

“There is a tremendous opportunity for women in this area. For girls…interested in IT, I want to underscore that they should go for it, and for the ones that are not sure, they should at least consider it and explore the opportunities available in IT.”

Dekker said her own career in IT naturally unfolded because of her early academic interests.

“I just got lucky when I was in high school; sciences and math came easy,” said Dekker, who holds a B.A. in computer sciences and statistics from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

“It is not because I received a lot of direction (that I ended up in IT). It was really by chance that I ended up in the career I am in today. But through my keynote, I hope to provide a bit of guidance (to attendees), which I didn’t receive 20 years ago when I was in grade nine.”

Conference organizers invited Dekker, whose group at Microsoft focuses on the enterprise, academic and student developer community, to participate in the conference because of her team’s connections with the latter two developer categories.

To prepare for the conference, she said she spent two hours with a focus group of grade-nine girls in Toronto, brainstorming about young women’s issues and concerns about going into IT. From this meeting, she came up with her Top Ten Myths and Facts presentation about IT careers.

“Some issues [the girls] brought up included fears that their friends will think (working in IT) is a geeky thing to do, and that IT work is not very social,” she said. “They were concerned that there were limitations for women in this area of technology, and they felt there is a stigma associated with IT in terms of it not being a very exciting place to work. They also had the impression that IT workers are chained to a computer and their office for all of their days.”

Dekker said she addressed these myths by talking to conference attendees about what a career in IT is really like, drawing from her own experiences. “You often have the opportunity to work around the world…and you are not chained to a computer. There are different customers to work with, and you can explore different areas of IT, including research and development, programming, sales and marketing.”

Victor Doerksen, Alberta’s Minister of Innovation and Science, said his government division, one of the conference’s Silver Sponsors (contributing between $3,000 and $5,999), supports science awareness not just for girls but also for all young people at the event’s target grade level.

“This is when students [start] to make decisions about what they will take in high school and beyond. We want to encourage them to stay in math and sciences to give them more options for the future.”

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