How women can pick up the skills shortage slack

The skills shortage rages on, but there exists an untapped resource in Canada. Earlier this month, the women of the country’s tech sector gathered at the Information and Communications Technology Council’s “Women in ICT National Forum” in Toronto to discuss the lack of women in IT’s ranks and ways to lure them in—and keep them in.

Schools and teachers aren’t exactly inflaming the desire of young girls to try their hand at an IT career, according to the Forum attendees. Many women don’t bother taking math- and science-related classes during junior high school, high school, and university, so if they take a shine to tech later on, they often are deemed ineligible for positions. Stephanie McKendrick, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Women in Communications, said, “(Employers) should try not to punish women for choices made in grades eight or nine.”

This rings especially true as IT employers struggle to fill positions. Said talent manager Nadine Nichols of IBM Canada, presenting on behalf of her break-out session group: “The networking, communications, critical thinking, and business skills that women have from other disciplines such as business or management or even philosophy (apply in IT as well), so recruiters shouldn’t just look for computer science graduates.”

Microsoft Canada’s Ruth Morton, another group presenter and an IT pro advisor, said, “You should be able to move into IT from any field. Recruiters look for very specific keywords on resumes, but they need to expand what they will look for when hiring.”

Many presenters and attendees commented on how women might be more attracted to IT by tech jobs that better the world in some way. Examples of this include, said Carson, catching child predators online, disease control software, and battling identity theft. Another way into the field could be through growing interest greening up the corporate world, according to Nichols.

Another break-out session centred on retention of women in the IT work force via a brainstorm on the perfect women-friendly IT company. Dean of science and engineering Nick Cercone of Toronto’s York University spoke for his group and set the tone of the session by calling for a “family-friendly and flexible environment.”

The Toronto-based CIPS public relations manager Mylene Sayo, who was her group’s presenter, agreed that the option to telecommute was important. She said, “We need an innovative corporate culture where you’d be able to define your own role. There would also be a more open hierarchy that would allow you to talk to anyone in the company, and you’d be able to return to your job (after a pregnancy),” she said.

Family-friendliness and a flexible work schedule and role were the most common retention strategies suggested. An example of this principle at work is Cisco Systems Canada. Vice-president of systems engineering Priscila David spoke about the company’s results-based evaluation system. Said David: “You’re measured by results, not by nine-to-five or the hours put in. We use technology to balance people a little better—it’s not about being in the office, but about what you do.” The company recently implemented a job-sharing program, and also offers plenty of work-at-home options.

Over at IBM Canada, 30 per cent of the workforce works from home, according to Moore. The company also offers part-time and flexible work schedules.

Other retention strategies around the work/life balance included the option for continuing education, and on-site child care and fitness facilities. And, according to group presenters Sherry Draisey (owner of the Nobleton, Ontario-based Good Vibrations Engineering, and Engineers Canada member) and Eleanor Bulatao (co-owner of the Toronto-based Technology & Consulting), women in IT need role models more than ever. Said Draisey: “We need high-level women to help (along) the culture (proposed here).”

Other important employees, according to group presenter and Etobicoke, Ontario-based Community MicroSkills Development Centre director of women’s services and resources Jane Wilson would be in-transition women (such as those returning to the workforce after childrearing, or attempting a career change), and internationally educated professionals (IEPs).

Female IEPs generally find it doubly difficult to find work in the tech world, according to Canadian job search experts. They face the same things as IEPs of both genders, such as a devaluation of foreign credentials and a lack of Canadian work experience, according to the Toronto-based program manager Kevin McLellan.

Another problem is culture shock, the loss of a social network, and self-doubt, according to Tej Wadhwa, a manager for programs and services and newcomer women programs at the Toronto-based not-for-profit employment consultancy Job Start.

But women must also deal with family issues, said Michael Raymond, director of programs and services with Job Start. For families coming from a more strictly male-dominated culture, said Raymond, if a woman becomes the main breadwinner, the power upset can sometimes drive the man to frustration, leading to alcoholism and physical abuse.

The men are also often afforded more of a chance to find a job in their chosen field, while the women are relegated to working “survival jobs” to support the whole family, instead of searching for work in their area of expertise.

The IT field moves fast, and generally requires ongoing learning and training to keep up with the trends. Resources for this will often, however, go to the male in the household, which, for a female IEP, can mean getting left even further behind, with out-of-date skills, said Raymond.

Their ways of working can also be quite different, said Rhonda Singer, an Information and Communications Technology Council “Women in ICT National Forum” attendee and the president of the Toronto-based Progress Career Planning Institute. These women are already dealing with the difficulty of catching up with any skills or recent innovations between family care, survival jobs, and acquiring language skills, she said. But many female IEPs also come from a more community-based and collaborative way of working, making it difficult to acclimatize to an IT culture based on independence and initiative, and up-to-the-minute knowledge, according to Singer.

All of the interviewees suggested that female IEPs seek out community support from employment programs at the non-profit and government level as a solid foundation for finding work in their chosen field. IT companies—especially those dealing with the skills shortage who have so far ignored the IEP talent pool—should also consult with these organizations about outreach programs, they recommended.

Make sure to check out the rest of our Information and Communications Technology Council “Women in ICT National Forum” coverage in the next issue of ComputerWorld Canada, due in mailboxes on March 7.