Times are tough in the IT industry, and jobs can be difficult to come by. For female IT technicians, the struggle to secure gainful employment can be even more challenging than that of their male counterparts.

Just how many women are working in IT positions seems to be a point under dispute.

On one hand, a survey of the Ontario IT labour market by the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) last May revealed that women make up a

disproportionately small segment of the IT workforce — only 28 per cent. Statistics Canada, meanwhile, says almost half (46 per cent) of Ontario’s IT workers are women.

Niche IT associations such as Wired Woman, DigitalEve and WebGrrls have sprouted up to offer women in IT professional networking forums. Digital Eve and WebGrrls banded together more than a year ago — under the Digital Eve banner — because WebGrrls faced a trademark dispute with an American organization.

Kathleen Webb, president of Digital Eve’s Toronto chapter, says women’s groups face additional challenges in a tight-fisted IT industry.

“”When the dot-com boom was going on, companies were generous with allowing their employees time to volunteer for various things,”” she says. “”Things have changed, production is paramount and people have to perform at their jobs right now.””

Webb says Digital Eve evolved out of a need for women to network, support one another and gain valuable work experience. The national organization has grown to include 4,000 members. The Toronto chapter plans to offer a new media entrepreneur program for young women entering the profession. But are Digital Eve and similar organizations regarded as

professional IT associations? Lynda Leonard, senior vice-president of ITAC in Ottawa, says it depends on the definition of professional. “”They discover they’re not crazy after all and that it’s O.K. to see the world from a different view than some of their (male) colleagues,”” she says.

Webb says the IT industry would be at a loss without associations such as Digital Eve, which offer low-cost training programs.

But University of Toronto professor Joseph Paradi, executive director of the centre for management of technology and entrepreneurship in the department of mechanical engineering and applied chemistry, says gender-based associations hold little value in the IT industry. “”Women are as legitimate to the IT industry as men,”” he says. “”If, by forming their own IT organization, women are able to network and find opportunities in the IT industry, more power to them. But there’s no discrimination in the IT industry. If you’re good, you’re good. If you’re not, you’re not.””

Meanwhile, Karen Lopez, director of professional standards for the Canadian Information Processing Society in Toronto, says associations such as Digital Eve play a valuable role in the IT community, but she doesn’t regard it as a professional organization. “”Do they offer certification programs? Do they offer the kinds of programs a professional organization does? No. But they’re not the usual, stoic organization either, and that’s what I like about them,”” she says.

According to Laurie Freudenberg, president of Wired Woman Toronto, her association’s goal is to encourage girls and women to pursue careers in IT and to provide Wired Woman’s 2,000 members with business and networking opportunities. “”There’s certainly been a higher demand of late to provide opportunities to the community to access our expertise,”” Freudenberg says. She says niche IT associations such as Wired Women have the respect of the IT industry and the community at large. She cites previous fundraising events that were sponsored by high-profile corporations such as Hewlett-Packard Canada and KPMG as evidence of the industry’s regard for gender-based IT groups. “”The fact that we’ve been here since 1996 and our members are telling us that we’ve been a benefit to them is indicative of our value to the IT industry,”” she says. “”We’re an association that prides itself on holding a different perspective, and different benefits and opportunities arise in a single gender-based organization.””

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