Female networkers face unique challenges to prove their worth

When it comes to careers in high tech, it is no secret that men outnumber women. That may be a result of challenges that are faced by women in the IT sector today. Topping the list of issues is that women feel they are continually second-guessed by colleagues and clients.

Carol Cartwright, network analyst, network and telecommunications services for Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., has been a member of the technology workforce for over 20 years. Although she said that in her current position her gender has not been much of an issue, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that she is the only woman on her team of four.

“When it comes to working on construction sites [for the university], that’s where you feel the difference,” Cartwright said. “If I go in and talk to a contractor about wiring, they’ll then ask for my boss. I have to say ‘Sorry, you’re dealing with me on this one.’ There is kind of a pressure to prove that you do know what you are talking about.”

Roberta Fox agreed that there have been situations where, as a woman, she has been second-guessed, but that her capabilities along with her people skills have proved to be advantageous. Fox, president of Fox Group Consulting in Markham, Ont., started out in electronic engineering primarily due to her love of technology. Fox graduated from Fanshawe College in London, Ont. in the early ’80s, where she was the only female student out of a class of 450.

“If I am meeting people for the first time, they are a bit surprised [to be talking to a woman],” she said. “But once I talk about my abilities and references and my corporate history and what my firm has done, there is no problem. I think that is because I have worked really hard to have a good reputation in the industry…and I worked really hard to get a strong technical foundation.”

And her credentials are numerous. Upon graduation, Fox became a circuit board technician before moving on to systems engineering, telecommunications management, and finally running her own consulting firm.

However, Fox is not a typical representative of women heading into the industry today, according to Statistics Canada. StatsCan pegs the number of women working in the science and technology spectrum at a less-than-spectacular 25 per cent. The government’s number-crunchers have also found that only 24 per cent of all computer science graduates are female, compared to 60 per cent in other fields of study, proving that the majority of young women just aren’t interested.

Recognizing the imbalance of the sexes in technology areas such as networking, systems administration and application development, many technology organizations have started at the bottom, organizing information sessions and workshops addressed at high school-aged girls. The Canadian Information Processing Society is one such association that has made a priority of educating young women on the opportunities of pursuing careers in IT. CIPS recently held its second annual Women in IT event in Toronto where 500 female grade nine students got the chance to meet with top female IT professionals to understand and clarify misconceptions about common tech stereotypes.

“The misperception of an IT career is what is causing women not to consider one,” said Karen Lopez, a director for CIPS in Toronto. “There are many opportunities available for women in technology, and we are trying to encourage young women to take them.”

CIPS said that over the last five years, female enrolment in computer science courses has been declining and is now estimated to have dropped to somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent.

The Ontario government is also addressing the lack of women in technology, and two years ago put words into action. The Ontario Ministry of Citizenship developed the Information Technology Training for Women (ITTW) program aimed at providing low-income women in Ontario with government-funded specialized training that will help them qualify for careers in IT. The nine- to 11-month program includes in-class training, a placement program and a mentorship program that the Ministry said will enable disadvantaged women to pursue employment in application development, network management and e-commerce, Web development and database and network administration.

“Under-employed or unemployed women tend to be streamed…and as a result end up in what has traditionally been called the ‘pink ghetto,'” said Rae Williams, communications officer for the Ministry of Citizenship in Toronto. “[Pink ghetto] jobs are typically [administrative] in nature and don’t really have a future.”

Williams said a top priority for the Government of Ontario is to promote women’s economic independence. And although the program comes with a hefty price tag – $6,500 to $10,000 – Williams said that fees for eligible applicants will be covered by Human Resources Development Canada and the Ontario Works Training Allocation.

“Women comprise less than 30 per cent of the science and technology work force,” she added. “We saw that as an issue…mainly because the science and technology areas are where most jobs are being created.”