Women could solve IT worker shortage

But girls are opting out of math, science in Grade 7 and 8

Women hold only 25 per cent of IT jobs in Canada and just 11 per cent of engineering roles, according to statistics from the Ottawa-based Information and Communication Technology Council, Canada’s IT human resources council.

When Microsoft Canada looked into why so few women are pursuing careers in science and technology, the Canadian arm of the software giant found girls in Grade 7 and 8 were turning away from math and science courses.

With an expected shortage of 89,000 IT jobs in the next three to five years, the tech industry needs to find a way to convince girls to keep all their options open, said Shann McGrail, business director at Microsoft Canada in Mississauga, Ont.

To that end, Microsoft Canada ran its first DigiGirlz day in February. The company invited 50 Grade 7 and 8 girls from four schools in Ontario’s Peel Region to its headquarters to show them how technology can be used in a variety of ways, from animation to fashion to helping people with visual impairments read material online.

“It gave them some idea of all the different kinds of things that might exist,” said McGrail. “And then encourages them to really think about finding their strengths and their passions and thinking about careers that may really allow them to build on that.”

McGrail adapted the program that has run in the United States and the United Kingdom for the past several years to break down some of the stereotypes the girls had about IT, including that it’s about writing code all day and only “men in suits with briefcases” work in IT, said McGrail. By the end of the day, about 20 per cent of the girls said the experience had changed their minds about IT and would make them consider a career in technology.

Providing role models for young girls and women is key to convincing more of them to enter the IT field, said Joanne Stanley, managing director of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance’s Women in Technology forum in Ottawa.

“We need to profile role models, women who are doing successful, fun and sexy jobs, to interest younger women and young girls,” she said.

But beyond that, organizations and the industry need to do more in the way of implementing formal programs to attract and retain women in IT, she said.

“If they’re going to increase the number of women who desire to come into our industry and, frankly, keep the ones who are there, companies need to step up and have proactive programs and strategies that address these issues,” she said. These could include a women’s network or a mentorship program for women, she added.

At Microsoft Canada, there is always at least one woman on each interview panel. Research shows female candidates are more likely to choose a company if they can see other women who have succeeded in the company, said Sharif Khan, vice-president of HR at Microsoft Canada.

IT companies also have to think about how job ads are worded because women won’t apply if they don’t think they meet all the criteria, while men will apply if they only meet some of the criteria laid out in the ad, said Khan.

“We need to get more proactive in how we’re reaching out to draw in this dramatic, potential skilled workforce into our organizations. And we need to be smart about that,” he said. “It’s about forcing us to be more creative and strategic around how we’re targeting our searches.”

IT companies also need to get better at leveraging the talent of new Canadians. Too many companies are stuck on the idea of Canadian work experience and are losing out on great talent, said Khan.

“The best of the best of each particular profession will be found in different pockets around the world,” he said.

Helping new Canadians fit into an organization’s culture is as easy as having a buddy or mentor system to help these professionals get acclimated in their new roles, said Khan. Diversity training is also important for all employees, especially managers, to ensure the organization is welcoming of new Canadians, he said.

Another stumbling block to filling jobs in IT is the interview process. Microsoft discovered it was doing too many interviews and taking too long to make the job offer, said Khan. For those who didn’t get the job after rounds of interviews, they were left feeling like they wasted their time.

“They end up with a bitter taste in their mouth,” he said. This in turn makes them less likely to apply for future jobs and more likely to bad-mouth the company to potential candidates.

There are enough people in Canada to fill the projected IT shortage, said Barry Gander, executive vice president of the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, an Ottawa-based association of 28,000 technology companies. It’s just a matter of making the most of the people who are available, which in many cases means retraining people who are in IT roles that may have become obsolete.

“The solution to our skills problem lies in adjusting the talents of the workforce we now have. It has to include new Canadians and it must also include the people who are already there and trained in something else,” he said. “We need a very flexible and fast way to move people from one area to another.”

Often managers want a quick fix, but they need to be looking long term, said Khan. New Canadians might need some time to acclimate, or candidates who don’t meet all the requirements might need some extra training, but in the long run, they’ll be valuable assets to the company, he said.

Progressive Work Practices
Gen-Y fan of volunteering, social networking

Progressive work practices, such as job sharing, can also help IT firms attract more candidates from all genders. In Europe, about 20 per cent of the workforce job shares, but that proportion drops to just three per cent to five per cent of jobs in North America, said Sharif Khan, vice-president of HR at Microsoft Canada in Mississauga, Ont.

“There are increasing numbers of people who will only work flexible hours. If our organizations don’t embrace that and don’t evolve our cultures and our policies to be inclusive of those people, then we’ve just cut out a huge percentage of the workforce,” he said. “If you look at the talent shortage, is there anybody we can do without? I don’t think there is.”

Communication technology in the workplace is important if organizations want to attract Generation-Y workers, said Khan. These workers expect to have cellphones and laptops and access to social networking sites, such as Facebook. Organizations that limit access to these technologies will have a hard time attracting Gen-Y workers, he said.

At Microsoft, Gen-Y workers picked the company’s “I Volunteer” program, which gives employees five paid days off to volunteer, as the number one company perk, said Khan. To attract and retain these younger workers, Microsoft also implemented an unpaid leave policy so workers can take up to six months off to travel.

“They’re actually willing to give up their career to go and do that,” said Khan. “So we introduced a policy where they can go and do that and come back to their job afterward.”

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