Number of female IT grads remains low

A recent survey of 10 universities by the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) suggests the average number of women graduating from computer studies programs has not gone up since last year.

The informal poll found that approximately 20 per cent of new grads from IT-related programs are women, an average similar to last year’s findings. That raises concerns for people like Pat Gaudet, CIPS Women in IT spokesperson and former CIPS Toronto president.

“I think it’s just a continuation of the issue that girls . . . as a generality, are not viewing IT as an attractive career.”

Gaudet said there are two reasons for this. “There are a lot of women in IT now, but maybe they’re not visible enough. There’s a lack of role models.” The other reason is that there is still a “preconception that . . . the IT career basically involves someone sitting at computer all the time and do nothing else. This is reinforced by the hackneyed view of IT being a ‘male nerd’ sort of field. Some of it is like that but it’s definitely not typical of an IT career.”

When asked whether the stagnant numbers were surprising at all, Gaudet said, “No. That is why we are running Women in IT programs: to improve the proportion of women in the IT field.”

Each year during International Women’s Week, Information Technology (IT) Week and the weeks prior, CIPS holds its Women in IT events across the country as a way to encourage girls to pursue careers in technology. According to the CIPS Web site, approximately 3,000 thirteen- to fifteen-year-old girls participate.

“We may be invited to go into schools and address girls in classrooms – it’s a way of putting mentors closer to girls and communicating with them” about what a career in IT is really like.

The speakers also talk about their careers in context with what happens in their daily lives. “Some of the questions we’ve had from girls in the past are around how IT work can be seen as being very demanding. They want to know how we balance work with life, a husband and family. We try to provide them with an overall contextual overview of an IT career and how women can make it work.”

Shelley Wong, an analyst at CGI in Toronto who’s doing J2E application development, said that she doesn’t remember encountering any of those misconceptions Gaudet was talking about. “At the time (in high school) our teachers were very encouraging for us girls to get interested in technology. I had a lot of friends who all went into same field and they’re girls too. I don’t think that image is so much out there nowadays. Since I was interested in IT, I just went for it.”

Wong enrolled in the computer science program at the University of Waterloo in 1998. Her studies included six co-op work terms, the last one of which was CGI, which offered her a full-time position in June of 2003.

In her graduating class, she said around thirty per cent were women. She pointed out that in her fourth year, she specialized in information systems, which she said is “more of a business related stream” – it tends to have more female enrollment than some of the other options like electrical or software engineering.

Wong said that throughout her university career, she did notice a change in the outlook students had when it came to job prospects. “In first year people were very optimistic. I can sense that it’s more difficult to find jobs now, but there are still a lot of jobs out there. It’s just not like before when you would graduate and get five offers. The market is still there but is not the same.”

Some of the stats Gaudet said she’s seen indicate that the number of females graduating from IT programs might even be falling. “The female numbers seem to be reducing disproportionately over last few years – it looks this way, although in last few years it seems to have stabilized.” She said the number of male graduates, on the other hand, seems pretty stable.

“With enrollment there are year-over-year blips that you have to allow for. Y2K may have impacted things a bit, maybe even pushing the numbers upward because a lot of attention was given to IT. It looks pretty stable when you look at it loosely across the years, but on the female side it is trending downwards slightly.”

Gaudet said she can’t speculate as to whether overall enrollments might drop because of the fear of offshore outsourcing – something that has been reported at some U.S. universities. “I haven’t specifically asked students that question. At CIPS we’re not extremely concerned at the moment but we’re keeping eye on the situation.”

She emphasized that an IT career does not just involve programming. “There are lots of other aspects to it. But from what I’ve read and heard about what is being outsourced, it’s mostly programming. Management and analysis, the kind of work related to software projects, are examples of things that would not be outsourced . . . and you don’t necessarily have to learn to program to go into some of those fields.”

Wong said she doesn’t believe offshore outsourcing will affect her job. She said the first time she heard about the concept was during a classmate’s presentation in her information systems management class.

“I know that there may be jobs that will be given to people outside of Canada, but there might be some benefits as well. Maybe we will be trained into more of a management role. But I’m not concerned about this.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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