At this time of the year, the media chases women issues. Among other things, there usually is an outcry about the lack of women in IT: their absence in boardrooms is notorious, there are few of them in the IT trenches, and even fewer enrolled in technical colleges and universities.
But this year, statistics reveal a deeper issue: There is a lack of interest in the younger generation at large about IT as a career.
Diversity of the workforce is pursued by human resources (HR) policies in many IT companies. While the low number of women in IT has got a lot of attention — and action — in the last few years, there has been little, if any, preoccupation with the segmentation of the IT workforce along other demographic structures, such as age, ethnicity or religion, to name a few.
Why is differentiation along the gender line still commanding so much attention? Is this a media fabrication or a real issue?
In my humble opinion, not all demographics carry meaning and importance. And in some domains of activity, one demographic structure is consequential but in others it is not. For example, no one decries the fact that, by tradition if not by definition, chefs are male, policemen are male too, and nurses in hospitals are female (have not checked the latest numbers, but empiric observation sides with me).
Gender demographics do make (or would make) a difference in other fields: politics would be different if the number of women in Parliament mirrored the proportion of women in the general population, and there is a need for more male teachers in schools.
Professions have their specific demographics in terms of ethnic composition too, and again, this may or may not be important, depending on the nature, the outcomes and the real problems confronting those occupations. In IT, no one makes an issue out of the fact that the profession is embraced by many south-east Asian people but not by too many black people. Work gets done just the same — as it should.
Also, the ethnic composition at the base of the pyramid is not reflected in the structure of senior management, but that does not trouble anyone either. Only the number of females seems to be noticed, analyzed and debated.
While the causes for declining numbers of women in IT are still being researched, and there are actions to force a more balanced structure by gender, the real problem is that the stream of young entrants to the field seems to be drying up regardless of gender.
Enrollment in IT programs across Canada and the U.S. have dropped by two-digit numbers in the last few years, and it is no secret that following the slump in IT and the massive outsourcing to jurisdictions with low costs, most young people no longer consider careers in computers promising. North American young people, that is.
This is an important demographic distinction for a continent that in the last decades has built its prosperity based on leadership and innovation in technology, and predominantly in IT. The lack of interest in IT as a career, despite increased and ubiquitous consumption of IT products and services, is poised to have a fundamental impact on the North American society: at stake is its home-grown competitiveness and its high standard of living.
Problem is, this trend does not look like a blip on the demographic radar and there is no quick way to have it reversed. While American universities still provide first-class IT education to many bright and talented young people, more and more of these people are foreigners. Should this be reason for concern in our global world?
This is a deeply interesting issue but not one put forward nearly as much as the lack of women in IT. For now, the advocates for the cause of women in IT have modified their message to include young men too. The key word is no longer “girl” or “female,” but “young.” The reference to ”Canadian” or “North American” seems implicit. This looks like a worthier cause to chase, but are we running fast enough?
–Andronache is a Toronto-based application developer who works for a large IT firm. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.