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I have to admit, I’m getting mixed messages.

Without a doubt, the IT industry has come a long way equality-wise. Yes, I’m talking about techies who just happen to be women. For one thing, there seem to be more of them than ever before. For another, they are starting to get more recognition.

Just last month in Edmonton, for example, the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) honoured Faye West, CIPS President 2000-2001, as a Woman of Distinction for her role in promoting information technology to the public in general and to young women in particular. That same association also held a recent event in Toronto, aimed at teenage girls with hopes of breaking common myths about careers in computer technology. Large international companies such as IBM Corp. have been striving for years to encourage a similar balancing effect to the still-male-dominated industry. All that is great, and very encouraging.

But there is a flip-side, unfortunately. For example, according to a recent survey conducted in the U.K. by non-profit group e-skills NTO, young women of today would actually prefer to be undertakers, rather than work in IT. Some of the reasons given included the fact that women, both young and old, tended to perceive tech careers as boring, isolated and uncool, and that they may lead down a path toward anti-social behaviour and unexciting lives.

Another recent survey, this one commissioned by Deliotte Consulting of 1,500 men and women in the IT industry, showed an alarming perception of a different nature. While 62 per cent of women surveyed said they believe there is still a “glass ceiling” in the industry, 62 per cent of the men said they believe there isn’t. So which group is right? That’s a very good question, but not the point. The fact that women and men working in the same industry have such vastly different perceptions of it clearly shows there is a problem somewhere.

One thing that’s helping to fuel the disconnect is the type of advertising found in many IT publications – many of which are obviously targeted towards men. GraceNet.net, an online organization formed to recognize exceptional achievement by women, recently listed a bunch of them in its “DisGraceful Awards”. Among the “winners” was IBM Lotus for its collaborative software ad, found in an issue of Knowledge Management magazine. According to GraceNet, the ad apparently depicts a woman working on a crossword puzzle, while a man was using IBM Mindspan Solutions to do complex mathematical problems. On the man’s side of the page, the copy reads: “Just learned discounted cash flow techniques with 40 other analysts.” On the woman’s side it reads: “Just learned a five-letter word for belly button.”

And who could forget the Qsol ad that ran in last November’s issue of Linux Journal? It’s features the head of an attractive young woman with parted red lips. Next to her face the copy read: “Don’t feel bad. Our servers won’t go down on you either.” I’m pretty sure that ad was targeting men almost exclusively, though I’m gratified that men seemed even more offended by that ad than women, judging from the letters that magazine later received. (Though it kind of depicts men as losers if you think about it, which may, at least partly explain the male outcry.)

Slowly things are changing. But women often face an uphill battle in this industry as it is, without this kind of alienation and exclusive humour. Advertisers should start thinking about the other half of the population – it will serve us all better in the long run.