Statistics show fewer women in IT careers

Less than half as many Canadian women are graduating from university and college IT programs today as were 15 years ago, a statistic that managers and business owners should find bothersome, said a director from a national technology society.

Statistics like that are what prompted the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) and several other organizations to hold a women in IT event to educate Grade 9 girls about the benefits of careers in technology.

The national event, held at Ryerson University in Toronto for an audience of 500, was similar to several being held across the country by CIPS on International Women’s Day.

CIPS says that less than 25 per cent of computer technology graduates were women last year and, if for no other reason than the size of hiring pools, this is reason for managers to be concerned.

“If 52 per cent of our population is opting out of these types of jobs because of some misperception, then that is going to make it hard for Canada to be competitive,” said Karen Lopez, CIPS director. “That’s not just for commercial companies, but effectiveness and efficiency for the government as well.”

At the conference, CIPS announced two initiatives to encourage young women to enter the IT field. The first, a national essay contest called Your Future…Your Mission…Your Challenge, is open to girls in Grade 9. CIPS is also offering an online mentoring program for students across Canada called Teens Ask CIPS, where students can ask IT professionals about technology careers.

Sandi Della Vedova, a guidance and social consultant at the Toronto District School Board, said thanks to initiatives in and outside the schools, recent research show that things might be improving.

“As of June 2000, our resource department tells us that 49 per cent of girls completing Grade 12 have completed, not just taken, but successfully completed, a computer science course,” she said.

And while Lopez agrees that these statistics are promising, there is one darker note.

“They are getting it later in their high school careers, unlike boys,” Lopez said. “They are being exposed to the technical courses later and they don’t have as long to build on the skills as the boys do when they go to university.”

She added that many computer courses in high school are focused on just literacy, so students should really focus on math and science if they plan on pursuing a career in IT.

“I made this decision (to go into IT) while I was in high school, which is about the worst possible time in your life to make decisions,” she said, explaining that her mother was a high school teacher, a career she said involves a lot of work for a little gain. Lopez said she was being actively recruited for an engineering degree upon graduating high school, but was more interested in the then-blossoming IT industry.

“I didn’t do it just for the money, but I did see that there were going to be good jobs in this field and that I should take maths and sciences if I wanted to get them,” said Lopez, who heads her own company, InfoAdviser Inc. in Toronto.

What students really may need is more accessible information about the courses their schools are offering, according to two Grade 9 girls from Bloor Collegiate.

Jennifer, a 14-year-old at Bloor Collegiate in Toronto, said the computer course at her school are a “good start,” but she would like to see more course information presentations because many students are put off by the perceived heavy work load in computer courses.

“We want to find out more about computer science and IT because we didn’t hear a lot about it during elementary and we just started high school,” she said.

Her classmate Amy agreed and was excited about learning what was available to her at school and at the conference. “I’m really into computers and graphics, so this is a big opportunity for me to learn more,” she said.

But, according to a British survey cited by CIPS, Amy and Jennifer are not typical. In fact, the study said young women would rather be undertakers than work in IT.

Catharine Casgrain, a program manager in microgravity science for the Canadian Space Agency, tried to dispel that image by telling the girls at the conference that the best way to approach IT was to focus on what they want to accomplish, then try to use IT to help get them there.

“That’s the big thing about developing computer tools,” she said after explaining the database she developed to log astronaut communications. “They make your life easier afterwards.”

A shining light may be found in research from Carnegie Mellon University that has shown young women will be interested in careers that are tied to a social interest, and therefore, interested in computing with a purpose, not just to create new technologies for technology’s sake.

Lopez agreed with that report, saying that women are typically drawn to careers with a “social good” in mind.

“It’s easy for technology to be just for the sake of technology, but women are drawn to things where they see a social good,” she said. “A female point of view is important to making technology succeed.”

Lopez said that according to the Software Human Resource Council, certain female qualities lend themselves especially well to particular areas of technology. For example, Lopez works in data management, which has almost 50 per cent females in it because the area is focused on data and meaning and the relationships in it.

“Women are typically strong in those skills,” she said. “Others are project management, because of the need to manage conflict, and multimedia, because women feel they have strengths in those areas.”

She added that women stay away from network operations and other areas that involve hardware.

“You really limit a pool of people if there are not enough people going into university programs,” she said.