Plugging into the old boys

The statistics are grim.

In 1999, women represented 47 per cent of the total workforce, but only 29 per cent of the IT workforce, whereas in 1986, women made up 40 per cent of the IT workforce. Eleven per cent of board members in the Fortune 1000 are women, but in a recent survey of 101 public new-economy companies, women fill only 3 per cent of the boardroom chairs. Perhaps the scariest statistic involves what’s to come: the percentage of women receiving computer science degrees dropped from 37 per cent to 28 per cent from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, and only 17 per cent of all high school students taking advanced placement computer science are female.

It seems that the bright future of IT dims if you’re a woman.

How did this happen? The IT industry is in its infancy, compared to its boys’-club fraternity brothers medicine and law, and yet it inherited another field for men to dominate in wage and number as though it were a birth right. With smaller numbers of women working in IT professions than ever before, and fewer young women entering the IT pipeline, it is a lucky thing that women in Canada’s IT industry are not simply standing by to watch it happen.

“As women, we have to keep our elbows up and make sure that we’re maintaining our place”, said Tricia Waldron, senior manager and women’s initiative lead for Deloitte Consulting’s Toronto office.

“The old boys network is still alive and well, even in the technology world, which is a relatively new industry,” Waldron explained. “In this regard, women have not yet caught up with men, so we need to help women make connections into those networks. It’s not that men are deliberately keeping women out, it’s that women have to figure out how to get in.”

still breaking ground

Despite the fact that 2001 marks the fiftieth anniversary of modern computing, the women in today’s IT world are somehow still considered pioneers in their field.

“We shouldn’t be pioneers, we’ve been here forever,” Faye West, the Edmonton-based president of the Canadian Information Processing Society, lamented. “When I started in this industry thirty-some-odd years ago it never occurred to me that there wouldn’t be lots of women in it, because it seemed like an ideal profession to get into. It was new and didn’t have the long-standing tradition of being a male business like engineering or law or medicine that have for hundreds of years belonged to men, so I don’t know how it happened.

“There’s still an attitude that if a client calls and hears a female voice they want to talk to the boss,” West continued. “It never occurs to them that you might be the boss. That changes with numbers. When people are no longer surprised to find women in those roles, it becomes a friendlier environment. Some people find it difficult to be the only girl in the room.”

Catherine MacMaster, a Toronto-based principal with Deloitte Consulting and a member of the IT industry for 25 years, said improvements are being made. “Women are here in the workforce and they’re here to stay. They provide value to the organization, and they provide as much value as any other employee does. A number of years ago, there was a perception that a woman in the workforce was biding her time, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”

CIPS past-president Marilyn Harris of Victoria suggested that an important step for women to take in terms of feeling a sense of solidarity within their industry is to become a member of a professional organization. “Women are not reluctant to ask for help when it comes to solving a problem. Professional associations are critical in working towards finding that help.”

Proactive steps

Several companies, including Deloitte Consulting, have established internal mentoring programs for their female employees, providing them with the flexibility and the resources to feel at ease in an industry that women leave at twice the rate of men, according to a U.S. report released last May by the President’s Council of Economic Advisors.

“There is something in IT that drives women away, or that they are less willing to tolerate than men are,” West said. “It obviously has to do with the specific field and the specific company, but there are some jobs in the IT industry that are more demanding of time and energy than some women are willing to put up with.”

Harris agreed. “People who are at the beginning of their careers are alarmed by the personal demands that come with having a career in IT. The whole 24×7 thing started as kind of a joke, but a lot of people don’t see it as being funny anymore. It’s a real issue in retaining talented women.”

This perception of the IT worker consumed by his or her workload is pervasive and possibly a contributing factor to women avoiding the pursuit of careers in the industry, and is a perception that females within the industry are hoping to change.

“It is possible to have a life and an IT career,” West pointed out.

According to those interviewed for this article, the key to retaining female professionals in the IT workplace is flexibility through initiatives that are beneficial to employees of either sex. Deloitte Consulting has employed a 3-4-5 program, which allows its employees who frequently travel a guaranteed day at home after returning from a business trip.

“The associate spends three nights and four days at a client site, and the fifth day at the home office. This program was developed through our women’s initiative, but now benefits all employees,” Waldron explained.

“Employers are recognizing that telecommuting one or two days a week is a huge benefit to their staff, men and women alike, but particularly for those who have larger family responsibilities,” Harris contributed. “Companies are slowly realizing the importance of finding that work/life balance.”

Opening options

Finding fixes for retention issues never become a problem if there are no qualified women to recruit to IT positions, so organizations like CIPS are developing initiatives to reach out to teenaged girls and encourage them to consider futures in IT.

On International Women’s Day, 800 female grade eight and nine students met at a CIPS-sponsored show in Toronto, while others met in similar situations around the country to attend seminars and workshops aimed at interesting them in careers in technology.

“Not all IT careers are what you’d expect. There is a breadth of opportunity available, and a lot of different kinds of positions in IT,” West said, describing the approach taken at the recent CIPS Women in IT event. “IT is a people-oriented profession, and not just about bits and bytes. When young girls realize that technology is used to solve problems for people, and isn’t developed just for the sake of the technology, they think it’s wonderful.

“All of us have a stake in ensuring that the IT profession attracts the best and the brightest – we cannot afford to continue to let half the population miss out on an exciting and rewarding career opportunity,” West said.

“It is important for young women to realize that IT is a flexible career choice,” MacMaster pointed out. “Every organization these days involves IT in some form or shape, and this opens up a lot of doors. These are skill sets that can be taken anywhere in the world, and that can’t be said for a lot of careers.”

Harris chooses to look at the shortage of young females interested in IT in a positive light. “We shouldn’t become too perplexed about why more young women aren’t involving themselves in computer science. Many young women are pursuing careers in other professions that have been traditionally male dominated, like engineering, and that’s a positive thing,” she said. “As the industry matures the number of young women coming into IT will increase.”