So where are all the women?

The “issue” of women in IT — or the lack of them, to be more precise — has been around far longer than I have, and will likely continue for years to come.

I’m conscious that, as a man, I may have a built-in bias of which I’m not even aware. But let’s try to boil this issue down to basics; namely, is the lack of male/female parity in the IT industry a problem being felt by the business community, and if so, what’s the source of the discrepancy, and more importantly, how do we fix it?

In answer to the first — is the lack of women posing a challenge to our IT economy? Had this question been asked five years ago, the answer would have been “yes.” Canada was in the midst of a modest, if over-hyped, skills shortage. Certain jobs were going unfilled for no other reason than a lack of people to fill them. Had women been entering the market at the same rate men, that problem undoubtedly would have been alleviated.

Judging from your feedback to us, though, and the overall state of the IT economy, that problem (except in a few niche areas) has evaporated. There’s likely more talent than jobs out there. So there’s no pressing need to recruit large numbers of new talent from any quarter.

That said, a discrepancy obviously exists — take a look around your own department, or count the number of women at the next user conference you attend. And what if we enter boom times again? Why is that women are less inclined to enter this field?

Frankly, I don’t know. Gender differences exist in a whole range of activities and professions. What’s important is that everyone has equal access to the career of his or her choice. Shelley Wong, a software developer profiled in this issue, said her high school teachers actively encouraged female students to look at IT. As someone who attended high school in the late eighties, I can confirm that. I can also confirm that had I expressed interest in, say, nursing, there would have been eyebrows raised.

But as it has in other professions over the last half-century, that stigma will fade away. Today women engage in all sorts of activities and jobs once dominated by men (only recently cracking some professional sports barriers, for example) and vice versa. Some have changed more quickly than others. IT, it’s safe to say, isn’t one of them.

The bottom line is if girls are being actively discouraged by the education system to enter IT, that is a serious problem that has to be addressed. But I suspect that such pressure has long since disappeared from North American schools. I’d wager a combination of peer pressure and family expectations, combined with the popular culture “stigma” of IT (remember the IT guy on Saturday Night Live?) have much more to do with the absence of women in this profession.

And that will change, with time. Which means that all we can do is remain vigilant. And wait.

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