President and CEO, The Anita Borg Institute

There are several theories floating around about why there aren’t more women in IT — and it’s a pressing matter, considering the impending labour shortage here. Some claim that IT doesn’t appeal to women, or girls just aren’t good at math. But when it comes to IT, are men really from Mars and women really from Venus?

Many industry experts agree there are differences — but it’s the industry that needs to change, not women.

The Athena Factor, a recent report published by the Harvard Business Review, examined the brain drain issue of women in science, engineering and technology.

“What they found was that over half of the women in these fields eventually left their jobs, most of them in their mid ’30s,” said Jenny Slade, communications director with NCWIT (National Center for Women & Information Technology). Reasons ranged from working in a hostile male culture, to not being aware of a career path to the top, to not having the flexibility to juggle small children at home with a fast-track career.

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“What surprised us is there’s no lack of love for their careers, and they’re not leaving because they don’t like their work,” she said. “They’re leaving because they’re finding the work incompatible with the environment in which they have to work.”

IT has been taught the same way

Stemming this exodus of women by just 25 per cent would add more than 200,000 women into the IT workforce in the U.S. “They’re trained, they’re skilled, so losing them comes at a huge cost,” she said. “Not just an opportunity cost, but an innovation cost.”

And women aren’t shying away from hard sciences either. In the U.S., women are earning half of all math degrees, more than half of all chemistry degrees and about 60 per cent of all biology degrees. Women also comprise half of all incoming medical school classes.

So why aren’t they jumping into IT?

“The way that technology is marketed to them, frankly, is completely unappealing,” said Slade. “Computer science has been taught the same way for almost 30 years.” Women have few role models and are forced to feel that if they’re not compatible, if they don’t learn well within the computer science paradigm that’s been established at the academic level, then they’re not right for computer science. “We need to stop trying to change the women and realize that it might actually be beneficial…if we change the way it’s taught,” she said.

And this starts at an early age, by trying to make technology cool. Deirdre Athaide, who studied mathematics and computer science at the University of Waterloo, joined IBM in 2004 and now has a patent in digital rights management. It was through IBM that she became involved with the Excite girls’ summer camp program. There are 53 camps worldwide.

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Women want an overall vision

At last summer’s Excite camp in Toronto, the girls built robots out of Lego, but instead of having a “Battle of the Bots” competition, they took part in a reality TV show themed “So You Think Your Robot Can Dance” competition — which included compulsory moves and a free dance portion.

So what about the stereotype that girls don’t like computers? “It was totally opposite of the stereotype,” said Athaide, solutions manager for sensor and actuator solutions with the IBM Toronto Software Lab. “They were all over it.”

Anything taught to the girls had a purpose. Camp organizers chose to use a completely graphical user interface, called Scratch, from MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group. In every module, the girls did a non-computing activity and then did it again in a programming environment. In one case, they took part in a physics module that focused on roller coasters. First they built their own accelerometer, then went to Canada’s Wonderland to apply this knowledge.

They don’t care what a programming language is, said Athaide, but they want to know how it relates to YouTube. “Having a vision of what can be accomplished has more of an impact on women,” she said. She believes, however, that oftentimes girls aren’t encouraged enough early on, and those stereotypes feed themselves.

There’s also a perception of what a computer scientist is supposed to look like. “People say, ‘You don’t look like a computer scientist,’” she said. Just because you have a passion for technology, however, doesn’t mean you have to look like you just walked out of Revenge of the Nerds. That’s why, in the Excite camps, girls are presented with a variety of different role models, she said.

Back in 1985, close to 40 per cent of computer science undergraduates were women. Clearly, that number has plummeted. “The whole field of computer science has lost its luster,” said Telle Whitney, president and CEO of the Anita Borg Institute. “It’s not just women, but it has impacted women an inordinate amount because of that image.”

High school girls perceive computing and engineering as geeky, and don’t see how it makes a difference in the world. “If you demonstrate that technology can have a positive impact on the world, it attracts a different type of person because they create a different type of technology,” said Whitney.

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Several studies show that girls who have the math and science scores to be able to study IT often don’t — but boys do. And this is where there could be psychological differences: a girl comes out of an exam room in tears because she knows she missed at least five problems, giving her an A-, while a boy comes out doing a happy-dance because he got a passing grade. “Study after study shows that girls just don’t feel confident in their ability to do it, whereas the actual data does not support that lack of confidence,” she said. “And it could be from that lack of encouragement really early on.”

Several social scientists at NCWITT who have studied this area for decades say that women self-select out of studying a field they don’t think is interesting because they’ve been told for half their lives that it’s not interesting. Women believe they’re not supposed to be interested in working with inanimate objects like computers, said Slade, and computing is seen as nerdy and isolating.

The whole field of computer science has lost its lustre.Telle WhitneyText

At April’s International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) sponsored by IBM, only five girls competed on 100 teams — comprised of three students each — from 33 countries in this Battle of the Brains. “I took a female to the contest once,” said Gordon Cormack, who has been coaching the University of Waterloo team for the past 12 years.

IT is more than just crunching numbers

It’s fair to say that females don’t find the contest attractive, he said, because they’re not into the coding marathon. “There’s a distinction between competitive and combative,” he said. “Females compete, but don’t like the same flavour of competition that males do. I don’t think it’s just females — it’s a great sport, but it appeals to a small fraction of males.” Female coaches were much better represented at the competition.

Kaitlin Sherwood, coach for the University of British Columbia team, got her Bachelor of Metallurgical Engineering in 1984 — and she’s used to being one of few women in her field. “Men are good at taking risks,” she said. “With risk, sometimes you fail. Computer science is riskier than vet-med — it goes through boom and bust cycles.” And if you’re trying out for a team, you don’t know if it’s going to pay off — if you’ll get on the team or go to the finals, or if the investment in time might hurt your grades.

“Part of the reason I didn’t go into computer science in the first place was because I wanted to use computers, I didn’t want to study computers,” she said. “We still had the stereotype that computers were used for crunching numbers, and that wasn’t interesting to me.” But using computers to solve mathematical and engineering problems is only a small part of the industry, she added, and far more jobs require business skills than pure algorithms.

“I worry about talent,” said Margaret Ashida, director of talent with the IBM Software Group. “Half of IBM’s business is in services — we need architects who can support our clients.”

And in North America, it’s a generational issue in addition to a gender issue. The millennial generation is wondering how their work is going to make a difference in the world. “We need help in helping people understand how technology makes a difference in the world, such as mapping the world’s DNA,” she said.

In recent research that delved into gender challenges in advanced technology, CATA WIT (Women in Technology) found that in the absence of industry and company strategies, women are dealing with these challenges themselves — either by working harder, working longer or deciding not to get into the field. Challenges include lack of advancement opportunities, lack of role models and lack of work/life balance. This is why we’re seeing fewer women enter computer science at the post-secondary level, or opt out of their careers earlier, said Joanne Stanley, managing director of CATA WIT.

A report recently published by the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) was the result of two roundtables — one in Vancouver and one in Toronto — where senior women in ICT came up with ideas about how to encourage more women to get into the industry. The report outlines an action plan that includes showcasing and profiling more female role models. In the fall, CATA WIT will be launching an online mentoring program, and it’s also looking to create a national network that will profile women in IT.

Less than 26 per cent of the IT workforce in Canada is female, said Stanley, but we don’t have any idea how many women lead companies or hold senior positions. “We need to have that benchmark — where we are today — to know where we’re going,” she said. A number of companies have active “diversity” programs, but we need to hear about what they’re doing in order to share best practices.

Mixed-gender teams make better products

There are 636,000 ICT workers in Canada and 89,000 positions to fill. And there’s a 70 per cent drop in enrollment in computer science and engineering. One university, which can accept 440 first-year computer science students, has only 23 applicants this year. “So in fairness this is an industry issue, not just as it relates to women,” said Stanley. “The industry has to go through a major branding and repositioning.” But when we consider that 52 per cent of our population is made up of women, we’re already losing 52 per cent of the potential workforce, she added.

Aside from the labour shortage, there’s also a requirement for diversity in product research and development. Studies have shown that products developed with a diverse workforce are more successful overall, said the Anita Borg Institute’s Whitney.

Having women on your development team, she said, can make a huge difference if your customers are women. Flickr and Evite were both created by women, for example.

Last year NCWITT ran a study on the U.S. patenting database to see if it could connect diversity and innovation at a statistical level. It found that women’s patenting rates are far below men’s for U.S. technology patents — however, patents from teams comprised of both men and women are cited up to 42 per cent more than patents overall (citation rates are a strong indicator of how useful a patent is).

“If you want to encourage innovation within your own company, think about putting together mixed gender teams and encouraging more women to participate in the patenting process,” said NCWITT’s Slade.

People have been working on this problem for decades, but they’ve been doing it in isolated pockets and haven’t seen a lot of success — in part because they haven’t been able to leverage their efforts. “Our end goal is to put ourselves out of business,” she said, “where we don’t need to exist because it’s become so commonplace for women to choose technology.”

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