Women in Canadian IT: How the best get ahead

The IT field isn’t one chock-a-block with women, a problem that starts in school with teachers unaware of the skills required or opportunities available for IT pros, and then manifests itself as a lack of ladies in the more hard-tech jobs, and few networking chances for those who are.

These issues were at the heart of a recent Information and Communications Technology Council-hosted “Women in IT National Forum” in Toronto. Panelist and Microsoft Canada practice manager Elizabeth Carson began by acknowledging that “the lack of women is an industry-wide challenge. Finding those women with strong, technically-deep experience is a challenge. The candidate pool is getting smaller, so having that diversity is not just a rights issue, but a competitive advantage — they can offer a different perspective.”

Carson said that in the professional services portion of the business, the deeply technical positions tend to be dominated by males. Women tend to gravitate toward less technical positions that, according to Carson, play upon their ability to understand communities and what users want. She said, “They tend to be project managers and business analysts instead.”

Vanda Vicars, senior vice-president with Bell Canada’s Enterprise Solutions’ design and delivery services, has found that her own intuitive and collaborative skills have helped her in her career, which included a 20-year stint with IBM Canada in roles like vice-president for technical support in IBM Global Services. “Women approach problems differently,” she said.

One barrier, Vicars said, is the fact that women don’t network as much as men do. One way to counteract this is to implement a structured mentor system that would help women navigate their workplace, and ongoing networking meetings and groups where women in the company’s IT department (or in IT in general) can interact. (IBM Canada has its own networking group for women, for instance.)

The laws of attraction

Managing director Joanne Stanley of the Ottawa-based CATA Women in IT Forum presented on behalf of her group and said that women should be made aware of the IT jobs that might be more interesting to them. Examples included human resource technology, online management and collaboration, IT security, IT architecture (including design, graphics, and software), and business and system integration. Her group also suggested that IT needs a new “look”. Said Stanley: “We need to change the perception of the ICT industry: we need to make it look fun and sexy, and emphasize the flexible work environment.”

School daze

“The fact is, IT jobs don’t seem that sexy and aren’t even that visible,” said vice-president Suzie Labonne of the Montreal-based R3D Consulting, while presenting on behalf of her group. “We need to reach out to more to kids and communicate the career potential and the money that can go to their pocket from this industry. We should show them how technology can leverage people in their career, and that people can use technology for business needs — technology supports the business.” Bringing better education to the school-age generation was a common theme at the Forum.

“Teachers see technology as a teaching aid, rather than as something to learn about,” Vicars said. “Math and physics aren’t made interesting to them,” according to group presenter and talent manager Nadine Nichols of IBM Canada. “They’re not able to show them how what you’re doing here can then apply in the future.”

Teachers are also generally unaware of the breadth of IT job opportunities, said Microsoft Canada’s Ruth Morton, another group presenter and an IT pro advisor with the company. “We need to smash those stereotypes and highlight those different roles and diversity of opportunity across Canada,” said Morton. “(Women) need get the language and tools to discuss the IT field, and the tools to move across fields, even if they don’t have a technical background.”