IT’s not for me, say many Canadian women

At least 90,000 new jobs are expected to be created within Canada’s information and communication technology sector.

Despite such explosive growth potential, though, many young Canadian women find a career in IT unattractive.

Many are averse to entering the sector, and most of those who do abandon their IT careers prematurely before they make it to the top of the corporate ladder.

The Canadian government wants reverse these trends by funding organizations that investigate the barriers to women entering IT and work to remove these.

See related story: Ontario invests in IT training for young women

Government financing of $405,000 was offered last week to the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, Women in Technology (CATA, WIT), a non-profit organization in Ottawa committed to the advance of women in technology.

The announcement was made by Helena Guergis, minister responsible for the status of women.

The money will help finance a new project called, Supporting Women’s Leadership in the Advanced Technology Sectors.

Such projects help remove barriers that keep women from capitalizing on growth and employment opportunities available in the tech sector, said Guergis.

Thousands of women are ready to explore and expand the opportunities available to them in this sector, Guergis said.

She said the government is trying to ensure such women have the tools they need to succeed, “for when women prosper, Canada prospers.”

The project’s overall goal is to help women take up and advance in tech jobs, or start their own technology companies, said Joanne Stanley, CATA, WIT’s managing director and co-founder.

She said the program will support initiatives to attract and keep women in tech companies.

Four project pillars

Specifically, the funds will be used to finance four initiatives.

The first will identify best practices for keeping women engaged in the high-tech sector.

To accomplish this, five firms will be used as mini case studies. CATA, WIT will research which policies and practices in these firms promote women’s participation in the workforce.

This research will be monitored by Wendy Cukier, a professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Lessons learned about what works and what doesn’t will be communicated to other Canadian companies.

Some businesses – through specific programs – have increased the number of women in their workforce by 20 per cent in three years, Stanley noted.

A second facet of the project will be an analysis of the strategies and practices adopted by successful female entrepreneurs.

Researchers at the University of Ottawa will study 10 women-led businesses in fields such as bio-tech, exports, federal government procurement, and more.

The researchers will interview women who started these companies to identify factors that contributed to their success.

Fewer than 10 per cent of high-tech start-ups have a female CEO, founder or president, according to research from the Stanford GSB Project on Emerging Businesses.

Lisa Crossley, president and CEO of Natrix Separations hasn’t experienced any gender-related barriers in her role. But she said she does have to go out of her way to find other women in similar positions.

Natrix Separations is a Burlington, Ont.-based biotech company.

Crossley is also a founding member of Women in Science and Technology Business, a networking group based in the Greater Toronto Area.

Girl talk

The third piece of the CATA WIT project will be the launch of a networking Web site for young women about to enter university or the working world, who might like to interact with other women already in the field.

The site is also designed for like-minded girls interested in the sciences, to communicate and provide support to one another.

“We’d like to see the numbers of girls going into computer science and engineering increasing,” Stanley said.

The Web site will become a social networking hub for girls, providing advice and information on strategies for excelling in their fields.

Finally, CATA WIT will host several workshops in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver to provide advice and tips to women already working in the field on how to move up and handle the work/life balance.

Around 23 per cent of graduates in advanced technology disciplines are women, but very few of them move to top positions.

In a nutshell, we’ve got a problem, she said.

“Fewer women are entering the sector and more are leaving – so we need to put programs in place to attract more women and help them move into senior positions.”

A lack of role models and mentors in the industry prevent many women from feeling like they belong at an IT company, said Caroline Simard, director of research at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, a Calif.-based networking community and research centre.

She said women tend to identify more with co-workers in the marketing or sales departments. They get pushed into mid-level management roles in areas perceived as more feminine, she said.

“Mentoring makes a big difference in career planning and decisions to move into leadership positions,” Simard said. “If women feel alone, they will leave.”

An obvious barrier also not being addressed is work-life balance, she said.

“We found technical men are four times more likely to have a partner with primary responsibility for the household than women. And women have a perception that to advance, they need to work disproportionately long hours.”

She recommends that companies provide skill updates and technical training during work hours, as women often do not have the time to gain this advantage after work.

The business case for attracting and keeping women is clear, Stanley said. Women comprise 52 per cent of our population and are a very valuable source of talent, which hasn’t been tapped.

A global study conducted by research group, McKinsey and Company, in Sept. 2008, found companies whose management teams are composed of least 50 per cent women, perform better on all fronts, including sales and innovation.

The pattern of declining women in IT is getting worse, Stanley said.

This is partly because there’s been no concerted industry response to addressing issues of work-life balance or the glass ceiling, she said.

“We are facing a potential skills shortage in our industry over the next few years,” said John Reid, president and CEO of CATA WIT.

But he predicted the new project would go a long way towards helping more women enter and “expand their opportunities” in advanced technology industries.

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