Posted by: tgrevatt | November 19, 2009

Attracting & retaining women in IT

An interesting link came my way on Twitter today from US-based National Center for Women in Information Technology. The percentage of women working as IT professionals has dropped from 36% to 24% between 1991 and 2008 and only 18% of IT degrees in 2008 were awarded to women down from 37% in 1985. Wow, these drop-offs are huge and quite disturbing for the IT industry – there are looming staffing shortages independent of gender. But why would anyone care how many women there are in IT? Well, did you know that patents produced by mixed-sex teams are cited 26-42% more. Diversity really does impact the business in positive ways.

I wonder what the similarities are between women going down the engineering path. Anecdotally in my circles there seem to be many women who went to single sex schools. Also, do some women have role models for engineering as they are growing up? My dad was doing a correspondence degree in science and I had a great time hijacking his labs – my mum still hasn’t recovered from the horrors of the moth massacre (turns out they were only anesthetized when I pinned them to the display boards).

Retention of women is also an issue, many are not practicing in science, engineering and technology (SET) after a few years. The quit rate is more than double it is for men. Why is this? Is it the culture of the SET workplace? Is the career in SET failing to meet the expectations of women?

Cate Huston has also been considering these issues over on her blog. She points out that often courses fail to engage the students. I think many of us, male and female, have supplemented the taught materials with interesting content (a fondness for Feynman got my friends and I through school). The Ontario colleges have also made great strides in relevant curriculum development in their applied degree programs, co-op programs like Waterloo and Carlton also help engage students with real-world problems whilst they are in school. I had the courage to dream of a PhD after a summer coop placement in my 2nd year.

Now we do know that the employment environment has changed and most of us can expect to have more than one career (let alone several jobs) throughout our working life. Are women keener on change? Several of my peers have made sweeping career changes in their mid-thirties, moving from SET corporate life to health or wellness services – perhaps they were looking for a career more aligned to their values. Others have gone the entrepreneurial path, finding fulfillment in the challenges and freedoms of self-employment.

It’s sad that the same discussions are still happening now that were when I was an undergrad, and shocking that the numbers are even lower than then (and they were pretty poor then).

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