Women in Technology advocacy group starts up

Women have been entering traditionally male-dominated fields such as law and medicine in significant numbers in recent years, but they continue to be under-represented in technology-oriented fields such as computer science and engineering.

Women comprise about 27 per cent of the Canadian IT workforce, and of those, only about a quarter hold managerial positions, according to research by the Software Human Resources Council (SHRC), an Ottawa-based sector council devoted to the IT profession.

Public policy to encourage women to enter scientific and technical fields, where there is growing demand for highly skilled labour, is critical, according to a 2001 report by the Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) ministry.

The SHRC is working with the HRSDC to study gender issues in the IT sector. In a 2005 poll conducted by the council, the vast majority of respondents supported the idea of a broad-range technology association that provides women with opportunities for professional development, networking and mentoring.

In response to this finding, Women in Technology (WIT) was started up under the auspices of the Ottawa-based Canadian Advanced Technology Association (CATA). Founding partners include KPMG, the Royal Bank of Canada, Manitoba Telecom Services Inc. and the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development.

CATAWIT’s mandate is to provide a voice and a forum for women who work in the IT sector or are high-tech entrepreneurs looking to start up or develop businesses.

“It’s kind of lonely out there. I’ve regularly been in rooms with 300 men and one woman,” said Joanne Stanley, vice-president of CATAWIT.

Stanley has been involved in IT for more than 30 years at a number of large organizations, including Bell Canada. During that time, Stanley said, she’s never encountered a broad-based association dedicated to helping women advance their careers in IT. Stanley believes an organization such as CATAWIT can help women help themselves within the sector.

CATAWIT is running programs and events at the new Ottawa chapter launched in October 2005. There are also plans to set up chapters in Toronto and Montreal next year, as well as other locations in southwestern Ontario and in Western Canada.

CATAWIT’s mandate will also include political advocacy, but this initiative is still in its infancy, said Stanley. A team has been assembled to determine how the association can influence federal policy to help promote women in IT. Attaining parity in the number of women and men in IT is not a goal, said Stanley. Helping the small number of women already involved in IT to organize and voice their concerns is CATAWIT’s primary objective.

There are historical reasons for the smaller percentage of women in the IT workforce, said Paul Swinwood, vice-president of the SHRC. During the heyday of IT in the 1990s, a significantly higher percentage of men than women obtained technical degrees in computer science and engineering.

“Many women were taking degrees and diplomas in other areas, and they came into IT from the side. So it appears that it has taken women longer to move up managerial ranks,” he said.

The Canadian IT sector is moving away from the “invention of IT” — the development of new technology — said Swinwood. Instead, the application of existing technology in order to increase productivity and achieve business goals is the primary concern, he said, adding that employers are increasingly looking to hire well-rounded IT staff with solid industry knowledge and soft skills such as analysis and communications, in addition to technical expertise. As a result, more opportunities are opening up for people who may not have formal computer science degrees or technical qualifications.

Danielle Sanschagrin, a Toronto-based contract business analyst, is a case in point. A certified general accountant with an MBA, Sanschagrin started her career in systems audit, and then moved on to application development. However, she believes her career development options are limited within IT. Employers appear to assume that people with formal computer science backgrounds can easily acquire business analysis skills on the job to handle applications development, she said.

But movement in reverse, from the business analysis side into technical areas, is rarely supported, in her view. “If…you want to cross over into technical areas, [employers] look at you with questioning eyes,” she said.

Sanschagrin believes a forum like CATAWIT that provides professional development and mentoring opportunities for women in her position can be beneficial. “But political action to tackle systemic issues is needed,” she said. “If [CATAWIT] gets good at lobbying, they might be able to overcome the biggest hurdle.”

In Sanschagrin’s view, this is the lack of government funding and support to encourage the development of business-related IT careers. Money appears to flow primarily into technical IT areas such as computer science and engineering, she said. “As a result, there’s almost no funding going to related areas, like project management, business analysis, communication, and so on.”

RoseAnne Mussar, a software developer working at an Ottawa-based startup, took the direct route into IT via a formal computer science and mathematics degree. Gender issues have had an impact on her career, she said. Although Mussar worked for prominent tech firms during the 1990s, her salary was impacted by her two maternity leaves. “Both times, I missed performance review cycles. When I got back, I was told, ‘Too bad, your salary is behind the curve — that’s your problem.’”

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