Breaking into the glass house

Think of an IT worker as a character in a movie. This person is probably in a dark room surrounded by large equipment and is more than likely a little socially inept.

… And chances are, this person is male.

IT is just one of those industries that is still known as a boys club, where women are typically the minority-and where the opinions on the topic are as diverse as the jobs in the field and the people who do them. The perception of IT workers among a lot of young women is actually as antiquated as the idea that all nurses are women or referring to certain positions as “pink collar” jobs. “We haven’t seen the progress that we’ve expected,” said Wendy Cukier, an associate dean at Ryerson University and founder of the Diversity Institute.

Hook them when they’re youngIt seems a little absurd to many people that career talk starts in primary school, but attracting women to technology actually does begin that early. “Many of the choices they make occur very, very early,” Cukier said, so building confidence (and interest) is crucial. Girls that age typically score better on standardized math tests than boys-but they don’t say it. The result is girls assuming they’re not as good at math as the boys, and the classic idea is reinforced. Consequently, other “male” courses are avoided.

Understandably, there aren’t many people up to the task of changing the core of Canada’s education system. But some people are trying new ideas.

Dan Harmer, a computer science teacher at Cardinal Leger Secondary School in Brampton, Ont. was seeing the number of girls per class dwindle each year and their engagement was lacking compared to the boys. “I think that the whole idea of networking and computers has traditionally been a male dominated thing,” he said.

“It was like young women had decided that IT wasn’t an option,” he said. So last spring, he went to his school’s principal and made a request-of the four grade 10 computer classes there would be the following year, put all the girls who signed up into one class.

Those 17 students didn’t know in advance, and showed up on day one a little bit confused. “One of them finally said ‘there are no guys in this class,’” Harmer said. “They were more outgoing and relaxed. We removed the intimidation factor.” “There’s always that level of competition between guys and girls,” he said, and in high school, that’s not always conducive to success.And it wasn’t an easy class. The course focused on setting up networks for homes and small businesses. The class was part of Cisco Systems’s Networking Academy, a global initiative where schools partner with the networking vendor to deliver IT education.

Several female Cisco employees ended up “adopting” Harmer’s class, including one of its Canadian managers, Hena Prasanna. She walked into Harmer’s class and asked how many of the students wanted to pursue a career in tech and only saw about three or four hands. Then she asked what kind of people work in IT. “They said ‘chubby guys with glasses,’” she said.

“These girls have this notion that you sit in front of a computer all day in a dark corner and don’t shower,” she said and that everyone in IT is like the “geeky engineer from (the movie) Jurassic Park.” Naturally, once women are in the field, keeping them there is still a challenge, which is why Canadian Women in Technology (CanWIT) developed its pilot e-mentorship program last year. “Our mentorship program is more about retention and advancement,” said Joanne Stanley, executive director of CanWIT. “We were testing a model by which you could have a mentor in Vancouver and a mentee in Toronto.”

“We heard that it was overwhelmingly successful,” Stanley said. The program even has some benefits for systemic change in the industry, she said. “We see an advantage in coupling senior male executives with young women because there can be reverse mentoring. These guys may not know what’s going on.” CanWIT has received federal funding to expand the program.

For Stanley, women in IT is a chicken-and-egg scenario. “You can bring young women into the sector, but if the climate isn’t there, they’re going to leave.” Strong role models at any age are what helps, she said, “and professionals in the industry who can talk about what it’s like, who will break down stereotypes and the myths that the jobs aren’t fun.”

It’s also about changing perceptions of what people in IT actually do and understanding that there is more than one education path. Technology companies are now hiring people with “hybrid skills,” and universities are creating programs that integrate technology with other important business and new media skills. “They’re not technology intensive so much as they are technology enabled,” Cukier said.

“There’s often a tendency to think that if you want to go into technology, you need to take computer science and engineering,” Cukier said. “Women are much more likely to be interested in technology if they can see how it can help people.”

Learning from the global villageAlthough Harmer’s class was more technology-intensive, part of the reason it was so successful was that it showed its students the impact of technology, not just how to use it, said Ayelet Baron, vice president of strategy at Cisco Canada, who works with the Cisco Academy on a global level.

The class at Cardinal Leger was given the chance to connect via video conferencing with another all-female Cisco Academy class in Nairobi, Kenya.

In Kenya and Rwanda, Cisco recruited girls who worked as house cleaners and even young women off the streets.

“These girls could sell their bodies for a can of Coke,” Baron said. The difference after having them in an IT class was major, and the girls in Canada could see that. After the classes in Brampton and Nairobi “met” online, far more of the students in Harmer’s class have now decided they wanted to be IT managers. “The girls in Toronto were impressed that the girls in Kenya have that drive,” Baron said.

Researchers argue that this kind of collaboration among women will have a major impact on the future on innovation, one of the biggest reasons IT departments are looking to recruit more young people.

Harmer is retiring this month after more than 30 years of teaching, but his idea for the course will continue. For him, what those girls learned will have an impact on more students than just the ones in the class. “Female students give all students the potential to see the technology.” CDN has had its say on the issues. Now it’s your turn. Tell us about your strategies on diversity, and the great women who have had an impact on your solution provider business.

CDN and Ingram Micro Canada will be hosting a Women in IT Channel event this summer. All those who give us feedback will be invited to the event.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Harmeet Singh
Harmeet Singh
Harmeet reports on channel partner programs, new technologies and products and other issues relevant to Canada's channel community. She also contributes as a video journalist, providing content for the site's original streaming video. Harmeet is a graduate of the Carleton University School of Journalism.

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