The number of women graduating from computer science degree programs has dropped over 20 years, in part because of trends in globalization and students’ perception of technology professionals, said speakers on Thursday at a conference about women in IT.

CIPS and the Humber College Institute

of Technology hosted “”Women in IT: Looking Towards the Future,”” an event in Toronto that allowed high school-aged girls to talk to women working in the IT field across several industry sectors.

According to the Software Human Resource Council in Ottawa, a survey this year showed that women account for only 24.2 per cent of IT workers in Canada.

Moreover, statistics collected by IBM Canada Ltd. reveal 15 per cent of women complete school with a computer science degree in Canada, in contrast with 21 per cent in 2000 and 37 per cent in 1984.

Joanne Moore, technical resources program manager at the IBM Toronto laboratory whose job is to attract top talent to the company, attributed the decline to the negative perception young girls have of IT workers.

In Moore’s session today, she asked students what they thought of lawyers and doctors, and heard descriptions like smart, sexy, good-looking and rich.

“”And then I said, ‘What do you think of when you think computer scientist? And they said, ‘Big glasses, geeky, no interpersonal skills, sits at a computer all day long, white lab coat.’

“”In part, the media and the television portray these computer scientists as off on their own in their own little world, doing things without a lot of interaction, without working with customers, without working in a team environment. I think girls like that social aspect, and also like to feel like they’re making a difference in society.””

Fears associated with offshore outsourcing may also have an impact on the decision not to enter computer science and other technology-related fields, explained Rose Wong, technology marketing adviser at the Canadian Innovation Centre in Waterloo, Ont.

“”A lot of the basic programming jobs are being moved offshore where the salaries are cheaper, and so what’s being retained in North America are the research, highly skilled, the creative-type jobs. So you’re seeing even middle-management software jobs, even the software development stuff, is being moved offshore.””

A report released last month by PricewaterhouseCoopers warned the Canadian technology sector can expect 75,000 of 550,000 IT positions to move offshore to regions like India, Russia and Latin America by 2010. Yet a creative local industry can offset these losses by increasing IT jobs in Canada by as much as 165,000 in areas like animation, health informatics and bioinformatics.

Emerging fields like bioinformatics and life sciences offer “”some hope”” to balance the gender playing field because many women in universities like Queen’s in Kingston, Ont., for example, are pursuing these disciplines as well as dual degrees like computer science and biology that will bolster their professions, said Moore.

Wong said there’s opportunity for women with skills in database management, data visualization and the creation of algorithms now that the human genome has been sequenced. She said already there are “”tonnes of women”” in science and research reflecting a 50-50 split between the sexes.

Although the technology industry is trying to tackle this problem, it’s uncertain whether their efforts are working, judging by industry numbers. For the past few years, CIPS has run a women in IT ambassador program in which volunteers visit high schools and talk about opportunities in technology, and another program that allows professionals to talk to girls at conferences like Humber’s, said Patricia Gaudet, manager of RBC IT business continuity planning, finance and administration, at RBC Financial Group in Toronto.

Gaudet said CIPS also provides a mentoring program in which teenage girls can e-mail career questions to an address hosted by the association.

Companies like IBM Canada, in which 28 per cent of women hold technical positions, encourage girls in summer workshops when they’re in grades eight and nine to consider computer science so they’re more likely to pursue it in university, explained Moore. It also hosts Web-page design programs for girls as young as aged nine.

Noting that past technological advances have initially worked better with men than women, such as the first voice-recognition software, artificial heart valve and vehicle air bags, she warned that society runs a risk in allowing IT and the sciences to be dominated by men.

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