I recently presented a keynote speech to the Computer Information Processing Society about the differences, challenges and opportunities as a woman in the IT and telecom industry.

Growing up on a heritage family farm in Ballymote, Ont., I was taught that gender made little or no difference.

I was expected to help fix cars and tractors, drive the produce truck to market early in the morning and help run the family fruit and vegetable business.

In our farm community, we were surrounded by examples of females who did a lot of firsts. One of my great aunts was a corn crop duster pilot in the ’40’s and ’50’s, my mother was the first female school bus driver in Ontario in 1968, my aunt was the first female computer programmer for 3M Canada in the late ‘sixties. I was the first girl to take building construction and mechanical shop at Medway High School in 1970, and was one of the first females in electronics engineering at Fanshawe College in 1979.

We also had the spirit of survival, combined with the ability to deal with constant change and challenges, just like the IT industry. We could lose a year’s worth of revenue in a few minutes from an early snowfall. This example reminds me of the technology stock market with its volatile ups and downs.

Similarities between men and women:

– Men and women in technology have a need to do interesting, challenging work;

– Both are interested in, and have the ability of being able cope with a fast-paced, changing environment; and

– All have a desire and need to work in an industry that recognizes and financially rewards contributions fairly with equal pay for equal work.

Differences:

– Many of us, as women, are visual-versus-analytical learners, so we need to find ways to learn complex, abstract topics in a visual way;

– We are able to multi-task, having many balls up in the air at one time. Conversely, we have a harder time on focusing on just one thing at a time, and to be able to do it very, very well;

– Building relationships and making friends is very important to most women, sometimes at the expense of our financial needs and careers. We need to learn to be more “”self”” oriented.

Consider these trends in the industry:

The current female enrolment in IT and engineering colleges and universities across Canada is the lowest since the mid-1960’s. The number of available graduates will not support the future industry recruiting requirements. In addition, the industry is going through massive transformation over the next decade as technology matures and converges. This is causing a shift of skills required by employers.

The aging of the telecom industry will cause a shortage of experienced telecom and IT professionals and provide opportunities for employees to be more assertive with their employment requirements such as part-time, flex-time and “”opting in and out”” work as career alternatives. The use and availability of high speed networking technologies supports these alternatives.

The IT and telecom industry is maturing from a pure hard-core technology and engineering perspective. The industry is now requiring new skills that involve more people- and relationship-oriented capabilities, and is evolving to be more relationship oriented and going beyond feeds, speeds, features and functions. Employers are demanding that all technology professionals (disregarding gender) need to have hard technical knowledge, combined with people-oriented soft skills.

The relationships are changing with our clients, as companies co-operate and compete, depending on the client and revenue situation. This drives the need for the environment to be fluid and flexible, and for us to be able to work with a diverse cross-section of fluid relationships.

My advice:

As an industry, we will need to use the diversity that both genders offer to help us evolve and be successful. We all have an obligation to encourage boys and girls at an early age to consider our industry as fun, creative, rewarding and fulfilling. This is absolutely critical if we are to have enough professionals to support our future resource and revenue requirements.

Roberta Fox is president and senior partner at the Fox Group, a Toronto telecommunications consultancy

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