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Millennials in the channel: Why bringing more women into IT won’t solve the gender gap

Channel StrategyMillennials Series

This is the final part of a CDN series on millennials, the IT skills shortage, and the evolving workforce, which include five articles. 

How do  you fix a problem that has been decades in the making?

For all the research, statistics, and hubbub generated around the lack of women in IT, little seems to be changing.  Google’s widely circulated report last year used just two figures to paint a sobering picture: female participation in Computer Science was at its highest in mid-1980s at 37 per cent, and has since declined to just 18 per cent last year.

Why is it that even with some of the biggest companies, including Intel and Microsoft implementing programs to attract women to the industry, a remedy seems so far off?

According to Susan Sim, to get the right answers, you need to start by asking the right questions.

To her, it’s not a matter of attracting women to technology, but rather of not turning them away.

“In the 1980’s when PCs came onto the scene, they were like work tools,” said Sim, who teaches computer science at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information.  She attributed some of the decline to the “genderization of computers” which associated them with men as opposed to women.  But more importantly, she said, it’s today’s toxic environment that drives women from tech.

“There’s a lot of efforts to get women into tech, and these efforts tend to look at it like a pipeline problem,” she explained, adding that the mindset tends to be “If only women knew how great the jobs in tech were, they would be coming to us in droves.”

Yet while overall efforts to get girls in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) have shown results , computer science has been the anomaly.

Researchers have documented dropouts among women, due to sexual harassment, gender bias (where women continuously have to prove themselves), conflicting expectations on their behaviour in the workplace (too masculine to be likeable or too feminine to be competent), not being promoted at the same rate as their peers, not being given meaningful work, and other factors.

To Sim, this is especially problematic because women who drop out mid-career have already shown that they enjoy and are capable of the work.

“So while they’ve been shovelling women to the front of the pipeline, the pipeline is leaking,” said Sim.  Most companies trying to increase diversity are doing it at the beginning of the process, she said, and are simply increasing the dropout rate.  She called mid-career dropouts “death by a thousand cuts.”

According to Sim, when these women go, their choice often falls into one of three categories: they leave entirely, go to another industry, or become their own boss.

This echoes observations made by Luanne Tierney, vice president of marketing at IT security company Fortinet, who co-authored Savvy!
The Young Woman’s Guide to Career Success.

She says that the draw of tech is there despite its hostile culture, and has led more women to turn to startups for the greater roles and exposure to opportunities that they provide.

The challenge here, as is the challenge in a big company, is to provide women with good mentors, she said.

“When you look at the industry overall, more startups that have been funded on male role models,” Tierney said.  “Do we talk enough about women who have been successful in IT?  We need to get away from the image that tech is a boy’s club.”

On a personal level, Tierney said says she tries to make an effort to reach out to women regularly.  In her experience, those with who are more politically savvy and understand team dynamics also tend to fare better.

Lastly, she applauded companies trying to make a difference.

“You need to get out of your comfort zone,” she said.