If the pundits are right, the IT sector will be facing round two of a skills shortage in the next few years. And if that’s the case, it makes good sense for all stakeholders to encourage more women to seek employment opportunities in IT, said Pat Gaudet, president of the Toronto chapter of the Canadian

Information Processing Society.

CIPS recently launched a national “”ambassador”” program to encourage high-school girls to consider information technology in their career planning.

“”CIPS wants to get rid of the misconception that IT is boring and isolated,”” said Gaudet, speaking to a group of 300 high-school girls who took the day off to attend an information session at Humber College in Toronto’s west end. “”In reality, IT requires a variety of skills and allows you to work with people from different walks of life.””

At the end of 2001, women represented 27 per cent of the total IT workforce of 410,000 people, according to Census Canada. Compare that to 1991 when one-third of the IT workforce of 179,000 were women.

“”The gap is increasing,”” said Gaudet. “”We need to correct it.””

That gap has trickled down and has had an impact on the number of female students opting into IT programs at Humber College, according to Louise Bardswich, dean of Humber College’s School of Information Technology.

“”We’ve seen a remarkable drop off of women enrolling in IT programs,”” she said.

In the 2000/2001 academic year, 21 per cent of the IT students at Humber were female. For the current academic year, only 15 per cent of the students enrolled in technology programs are female.

The dot-com bust accounts for some of that drop, but it runs deeper, according to Leah Brown, Humber’s manager of student and workplace liaison program.

“”IT is a male-dominated industry and (young women) aren’t comfortable breaking into that field,”” said Brown.

She said more education is necessary regarding the variety of jobs available in IT, beyond the stereotypical programmer/analyst positions that demand strong math and science skills.

“”This model of sitting in front of a computer and programming 24X7 is so far from what’s happening now,”” she said.

Brown also said tech vendors — who have a vested interested in ensuring there’s a healthy talent pool in the market — need to figure prominently in the fix.

“”It’s going to be critical . . . if they’re not willing to buy into this and help females understand that their industry, their company, their products and services are exciting, it’s going to be difficult to change,”” she said.

CGI is one tech company that’s actively encouraging young women to consider careers in the technology field. And as one of Canada’s largest systems integrators, it practices what it preaches: Nearly 40 per cent of CGI employees are female and almost one-third of management positions are held by women.

Alice Thomas, CGI’s vice-president of e-business and customer care in Toronto, advised students not to let traditional roadblocks stand in their way.

“”My dad didn’t push me to go into computer science; he thought it was a man’s job, but my mother told me to do whatever I wanted,”” said Thomas. “”This is a dream job; I bring value to my customers and to the people on my team.”” Representatives from Computer Associates, Telus and IBM also spoke at the event.

It didn’t take a lot of coaxing for Gayatri Manchanda to figure out she wanted a career in the high-tech industry.

Manchanda, a third-year programming/analyst student at Humber, began pursuing an education in technology in her native India. When she moved to Toronto a few years ago, she picked up where she left off at Humber. She dreams of landing a job at Microsoft or IBM, but she’s mindful of the fact there’s a dearth of opportunities in the tech sector, especially for candidates with no experience.

“”I graduate in December and I’m hoping to get a programming job by January,”” she said. “”I’d like to find work in anything related to what I’ve learned. If I’m able to put that into practice, that will be enough for me.””

But many companies look for job candidates with experience, and that’s something Manchanda likely won’t be able to offer, even though her program includes a co-op component.

“”This summer was supposed to be my co-op,”” she explained. “”I went for the interview, but unfortunately, they closed the posting, with no explanation.””

But Manchanda isn’t discouraged. On the contrary, the inherent challenges in IT are a big part of what inspired her choice.

“”I think maybe it’s going to be even more challenging after I graduate because you need to do continuous upgrading (of your skills) in IT,”” she said.

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