IT is still an old-boys club

Let techies boasting facial hair complain about sleep-deprivation, mental exhaustion and carpal tunnel syndrome. Today’s wired women have more pressing concerns, like finding a cure for testosterone-overload.

Okay, so such a syndrome has yet to appear in the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine, but given the gender discrepancies governing today’s IT industry, it’s almost a wonder why not.

According to a study conducted by the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers, women accounted for less than 20 per cent of total undergraduate enrollment during the 1997-98 academic year, and a disappointing 5.5 per cent of the country’s total population of registered professional engineers. The study also suggests that women tend to gravitate toward less computer-centric engineering disciplines. Forty-seven per cent of environmental engineering students and 38 per cent of chemical engineering students were women, but they only accounted for 13 per cent of enrollment in electrical engineering programs, and nine per cent of computer engineering programs. And according to Statistics Canada, in the past four years, female enrollment in Canadian college technical courses has dropped to 24 per cent.

So what’s to blame for the poor showing of women pursuing careers in electrical engineering and computer science? According to observers, an old boy’s network, systemic bias and low self-esteem are all playing a part in keeping sectors of the IT industry practically estrogen-free.

The problem, it seems, stems back to the day your geeky little brother decided to shift his undivided attention from comic books and dirty magazines to electrical circuits and copper wires.

“We all know that the technology industry began with boys in basements – that’s the heritage and that’s the legacy,” said Denise Shortt, head of the Toronto Chapter of the Wired Woman Society and the co-founder of Little Black Dress Inc., a recently-launched tech strategy company.

However, it didn’t take long for yesteryear’s basement boys to become the head-honchos of some of today’s multibillion-dollar IT corporations. And it’s precisely these industry pioneers that are often accused of weaving a tangled web of old boys’ networks.

Carly Milne, the Edmonton-born creator of Moxie, an Internet portal that provides links to countless women’s E-zines, said “The majority of [technology companies] are run by old suit-and-tie, boys’ club men starting up a company because they hear it’s the in-thing to do…but I find that when you get involved with these old boys’ companies, they tend to treat women like we don’t know what we’re talking about.”

But that’s not all. Experts say that women are often at a disadvantage the very moment they grasp the hand of a potential employer. After all, there’s no discounting the importance of today’s pain-staking interview process.

“Hiring is a very subjective decision and people are naturally going to tend to want to hire somebody that they have rapport with and rapport may mean somebody being somewhat like themselves,” said Naomi Nishimura, a professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo.

More than simply frustrating, strained relations stemming from gender issues can also lead to the inability to be taken seriously and the exclusion from after-work beer bashes and other prime networking opportunities. Or in the worst case scenario, harmful allegations of sexual discrimination and harassment.

According to a 1991 study at the University of Ottawa’s engineering school, 58 per cent of female fourth-year students reported negative or sexist attitudes by faculty or staff, compared to 23 per cent of male students.

But while women in the workplace and academia encounter their fair share of obstacles, experts say that kindergarten classrooms can just as easily serve as breeding grounds for feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. In fact, recent studies indicate that although elementary school girls’ achievement levels in math and sciences are as high, if not higher, than boys, their confidence levels are at a disturbing low. And according to a recent Simon Fraser University study, 54 per cent of female engineering students reported someone had tried to discourage them from pursuing engineering, compared to 16 per cent of male engineering students.

Faye West, director of information systems at the Alberta Research Council and the upcoming president of the Canadian Information Processing Society said: “The cultural attitude that ‘Girls don’t do science’ that is learned in early childhood is often carried over into adulthood. Women need to exude a confidant ‘I can do anything. I am every bit as good at this as anyone else’ attitude.”

Jess Joss agrees. “Women are much less likely to self-promote in a strong and assertive way,” said the president of Jesslin Services Inc., a Toronto-based Internet consulting firm. “I think women overall are less likely to say, ‘I’m an expert in my field’ than a male is…I don’t think a lot of women have enough confidence in their abilities to self-promote.”

However, offering enormous hope is a growing number of initiatives aimed at combating issues such as sexual harassment, pay inequity and low self-esteem. IBM Canada regularly hosts ‘Jump Into IT,’ a day-long event that invites girls in grades seven and eight to participate in fun, technology-based team projects and to listen to local female techies discuss their experiences. And organizations such as the Wired Woman Society and Webgrrls offer women networking opportunities by staging monthly meetings, industry events and conferences.

“[Wired Woman Society] provides an environment for women to get together and network in an environment where they feel comfortable and supported. They can ask questions about things that they don’t understand completely and feel comfortable that they won’t be undermined,” said Shortt.

In the meantime, however, an increasing number of women are gravitating towards less computer-centric disciplines. In fact, according to a 1996 Ryerson alumni survey, 77 per cent of respondents who graduated from the Toronto university’s administration and information management program were women, compared to 14 per cent of electrical engineering graduates.

The result is a proliferation of home-based businesses specializing in the service-oriented fields of Web design and content development. Experts assert that unlike their male counterparts, technically inclined women tend to better balance business requirements and technical expertise, bringing negotiation, interpersonal and leadership skills to the table with them. Not to mention that such entrepreneurial endeavours enable female chief executives to handpick both clients and coworkers, create a female-friendly work environment and establish a schedule that accommodates plenty of leisure and social activities.

“A lot of women realize that they need balance in their lives and by [operating] a small business and one that relies on technology, you don’t have to be on-site all the time and you can have a life and a business, and still do fairly well,” Joss said.

Marketplace demands, a sense of balance and interpersonal skills aren’t all that is prompting tech-savvy women to seek self-employment. Pop culture is also playing a significant role in the advancement of female techies. Mainstream movies including The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, and The Matrix, as well as the portrayal of women in Star Trek Voyager and Deep Space Nine are increasingly casting women in leading roles.

In fact, there are those who argue that complaints of an old boys’ network, pay inequities and systemic bias can sometimes be predicated on fiction rather than fact.

Robin Cohen, a professor of computer science at the University of Waterloo, points out that times have drastically improved since she was working towards her Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Toronto in the early ’80s. “The females that I’ve encountered personally, while I’ve been teaching here, haven’t expressed to me particular difficulties in being in this field.”

Janet Wood, general manager of IBM Canada’s e-business solutions unit and a 15-year veteran of the company, agrees. “Some of my friends at IBM say, ‘You know, I really just don’t aspire to [a senior-level position] because I don’t have time. To me that just looks like more responsibility, more pressure and I’m not interested in that.’ So it’s not necessarily that a glass ceiling is imposed on them. It’s that they’ve chosen, at least at this time, not to move forward.”

Yet despite these signs of progress, there’s no denying the need to continually develop out-reach programs, all-girl computer camps and equitable working environments. After all, women simply can’t afford to miss the countless personal and professional opportunities presented by today’s ever-evolving world of IT.

According to the Information Technology Association of Canada, in 1996 alone IT companies generated $70 billion in revenues in Canada. And there are currently no fewer than 20,000 unfilled IT jobs across the nation, primarily in the areas of computer science, electrical engineering, software design and systems analysis. Certainly, obstacles exist. But experts say that given the resources, networking opportunities and job openings available to today’s wired women, they shouldn’t be insurmountable. This is especially true if you’ve always dreamed of injecting a little estrogen into an otherwise testosterone-driven industry.

“Technology underlies everything we do so it’s imperative for women to take control of their lives and careers as digital citizens and that means women as consumers, users and developers of technology,” Shortt said.

Waxer is a freelance writer in Toronto. She can be reached at