The industry needs more IT people, and women are the likely candidates

Executives quoted figures from Statistics Canada that said less than five per cent of Canadian females in full-time undergraduate programs choose engineering and applied sciences, compared to about 15 per cent of males. Everyone agreed the industry needed to do something about it. We still do, and we need to change how we do it.You can’t fault the industry for trying. In Canada, Companies like IBM and CGI were early champions of this cause, sending out successful female executives to high schools and youth events to inspire a new generation of technology professionals. For a while, things were looking up. According to StatsCan, between 1997-98 and 2000-01, the number of women in mathematics and physical sciences rose 22 per cent, compared with 17 per cent for men. The number of women in engineering increased 20 per cent, compared with only seven per cent for men. Most IT associations, including CATA, ITAC and CIPS, have launched women in technology programs.

Somewhere along the way, however, the need for women in IT has been sidelined by the need for people of either gender in IT. University enrolment rose in almost every field of study in 2003/04, StatsCan says, except mathematics, computer and information sciences, where the student population fell 3.2 per cent. This decrease was driven by a 7.5 per cent drop in computer science enrolment.

Now it’s getting even worse.Between 2001-2002 and 2004-2005, overall enrolment in mathematics, computer and information dropped by 22.8 per cent. In other fields, though, women are overtaking men in terms of active engagement in postsecondary study. A total of 585,200 women were registered in an undergraduate program in 2004/2005, making up 58 per cent of the total undergraduate class across Canada. These women are probably working on laptops in common areas, communicating with fellow students via cell phone and possibly blogging in their spare time. They are power users in the making.

In the long-term, women will be the most likely candidates to fill the roles occupied in IT departments today. To give them some incentive, we must approach their recruitment with the same project management techniques we would apply to an enterprise upgrade. Many women in IT programs have seemed to hope for any increase at all in female enrolment. We must set specific targets, and we must do a better job of measuring our progress. Programs that allow seasoned female IT executives to network are valuable, but the emphasis has to be on attracting a new generation of talent. Finally, we should take a second look at our assumptions. If IT is truly aligned with the business, it should appeal women as an area of strategy, rather than grunt work that may get outsourced. So far our young women aren’t hearing that call. We have to hope they will one day exercise a girl’s right to change her mind.

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