Forum gets $405,000 to lure women to IT

The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance Women in Technology Forum (CATA WIT) announced last week that it’s set to receive $405,000 from the federal government over the next two years.

More money will be added to this by the Ontario Women’s Directorate. (The specific amount will be announced next month.)

Status of Women Canada has earmarked the funds for the Supporting Women’s Leadership in the Advanced Technology Sector project. This will include a Ryerson University-led national study of technology companies to document their best practices in attracting and retaining women.

“This will find out what is in place, and what’s working and what’s not,” said Joanne Stanley, managing director of CATA WIT. “A lot of women personalize the (socialization, hiring, and industry) issues to cope, and that results in them not coming in at all, or leaving the industry. We need companies to unite to deal with it.”

One change that could bolster the country’s IT ranks with more women is a cultural one. Flexibility is often unavailable in the corporate culture, according to Caroline Simard, director of research with the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. And, if it is there, actually taking advantage of it is frowned upon. She said that many women in the IT industry have foregone having a robust family life to get ahead. “If the executives are working 80 hours a week, but saying, ‘Sure, go ahead!’, it sends mixed messages. But if they are picking up their kids from school, it sends a better message.”

The University of Ottawa will also be heading up a set of case studies on women who have started, or who lead, technology companies. “The output there will provide a report of good tips for others,” said Stanley.

A new social network — entitled — aimed at women in high school, college, and university (or looking to change career paths) encourages women to enter the technology field, whether it be IT or engineering. “We want to show that there are sexy, fun jobs in this field,” Stanley said.

“There’s still a stereotype out there that a career in IT means working as a computer geek. Technology is all around us – we use it everyday, which means that IT jobs are potentially everywhere too,” said Carol Parnell, president of the Canadian organization for women in IT, Wired Woman. “ With baby boomers retiring there is already a skilled shortage of qualified workers, providing opportunities for women in technology programs.

The rest of the money will go toward a series of professional development workshops to be held in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Montreal. The focus of these will include mentorship and networking.

A major focus of the new project will be not just getting women into IT, but giving them the right skills to succeed, according to Stanley. “There isn’t a shortage of people, there’s a shortage of the right talent,” she said. “We’re looking at a significant increase in jobs, but where can they find these skills they need?”

“The focus on mentorship and networking is central to advancement in one’s career,” said Simard.

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IBM Corp. is one company that has already reaped the benefits of a formal mentoring program. Junior-level employees are matched with executives, and managers are paired with external mentors. (There are also women’s groups that allow female employees to meet and network with one another.)

Such a model implemented in more technology companies would assist in raising the retention rates of women in IT, according to Rukhsana Syed, the diversity and inclusion program manager with IBM Canada, who focuses on women, Aboriginals, and people with diabilities. “If I don’t see somebody like me, it will weaken my urge to move forward. Without mentoring, there won’t be much initiative,” she said.

Networking skills are especially important, said Simard. “People tend to network with people like themselves, so women tend to be naturally excluded, and so they don’t have that broad social network (that’s necessary),” she said.

The workshops could also aid women in learning the art of self-promotion. This can be a challenge, said Simard. Most women are socialized not to promote themselves. This is especially hard for immigrant IT workers, who may have been warned even more against self-promotion, or face a language barrier.

“It’s not just a social justice issue, but a business imperative. If you have different points of view at the table, you’re more likely to innovate,” said Simard.

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