The curious case of women in ICT

This article first appeared in the January issue of Connections+ magazine, a trade publication devoted to helping ICT professionals understand trends shaping the cabling, networking and mobile industries and how these in turn impact the world of work. It was inspired by the observation of a colleague: at an industry event, magazine editor Paul Barker, wondered aloud about the contrast between the headlines on the hiring of women into top IT vendor positions and the absence of women in the technology rank and file. The article below is my response, a critical, yet positive look at ‘what is to be done’ to improve gender parity in ICT, and a salute to women in the field on International Women’s Day. (ed.)


Is the glass half full or half empty? In the context of women’s role in ICT, this question evokes the same ambiguity that marks virtually all discussions of complex social evolution. On one hand, the contribution that women could make to the ICT industry is clear; according to the ICTC’s Labour Market Outlook 2015-2019, Canada will struggle to fill over 182,000 ICT positions needed to keep the country competitive over the next five years and could use all hands on deck. At the same time, women would benefit from employment in the well-paying jobs of the future that ICT can offer; in 2013, the Canadian government’s ICT Sector Profile found that ICT workers earned on average $69,876 in 2013 or 48% more than the economy-wide average of $47,354. But despite ongoing efforts by industry, educational institutions and government to improve gender parity in ICT, women’s employment in computing businesses has languished at rates that do not compare well with men’s and in fact represent a considerable decline from their high point in the mid-1980s.

Curiouser and curiouser, the industry has also lately experienced a management bonanza featuring the elevation of multiple high profile female executives to top leadership positions in Canada and elsewhere. On the domestic front, these include Mary Ann Yule, who has just been named managing director of HP Canada, Karen Sheriff, president and CEO of Canadian data centre outsource service provider Q9 Networks, Janet Kennedy, CEO of Microsoft Canada, and Bernadette Wightman, former GM of Cisco’s Russian subsidiary, and now president of the Canadian operation. Globally, the star cast features IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, HPE CEO Meg Whitman, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and Marissa Mayer, CEO at Yahoo!, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Safra Catz, co-CEO of Oracle, and Cher Wang, co-founder and chairperson of HTC Corporation.

Out of this dubious legacy, two key questions emerge: what accounts for the gap between the experience of female leaders and others, and what can be done to address the uneven advance of women in ICT, a goal that is of critical importance to women and to industry development more generally?

For most women, a career in ICT remains elusive. While the share of women in the US ICT workforce peaked at 38% in the mid-1980s, it has been falling in the US and on a global basis ever since. Today, Canadian women make up 47.3% of the labour force; however, the ICTC Labour Outlook estimates that women made up only 24 percent of the Canadian ICT workforce total in 2015, while at the top 10 Canadian technology companies, they represent only 16.5 percent of workers. When focus is trained on management positions, female representation is more thin, and the view from the board room is similarly bleak, with women constituting only 16.5 percent of board members in public ICT businesses (as of 2013).

One perceived challenge to greater participation in the computing sector that has been advanced is women’s lack of STEM education. Statistics Canada has found that women’s enrollment in computing disciplines at the post-secondary level is significantly lower for women than it is for men and falling: women accounted for 37% of enrollment in 2005-2006, but by 2009, that figure had dropped to 27 percent. Another Statscan summary has shown that male enrollment increased dramatically over this period, with the result that there were roughly twice as many male graduates as female in 1992, and three times as many in 2007. Today, estimates of female enrolment in STEM disciplines vary, but hover around the 19 percent mark, while an online survey of with 1,007 Canadians carried out by Angus Reid on behalf of MasterCard in 2014 found that only 18 percent of Canadians who considered a career in technology were women.

Recent research from Randstad’s Women Shaping Business study 2015 suggests that little change on this score can be expected, even if gender parity in enrollment in other disciplines such as finance, business and law is on the rise. According to report authors, only 3 percent of the 1,005 Canadian working women surveyed for the study are currently studying to work in a STEM profession, and the most frequently cited barrier to women’s choosing a STEM or skilled trade career is the stereotype that STEM is a “male-centric field” – though 27 percent of women (35% in the 18-34 year old cohort; 29% of 35-54 year olds; 20% of 55 year olds), more women from higher income families, and more women with children stated they would have considered STEM with the right support or guidance.

Even more alarming in the study; however, are perceptions around barriers to work in STEM fields reported by women in general, compared to the views of women who are actually working in STEM occupations. As the figure from Randstad research below shows, experience of work in STEM reinforces many of women’s fears.


Faith Tull, senior vice president of HR at Randstad Canada, said this research is conducted on an annual basis because “even though a lot of the information on gender inequality is commonplace, the question is ‘what are we doing about it?’ “Our survey shows that while there may have been small improvements — in attitudes held by the younger cohorts, for example – we still have a problem. But the research shows that with the proper encouragement, many women would choose a STEM career. So, how do we encourage them to do so? This is where we need to place more focus, make more investment, and devote more energy.”

If the numbers sketch out the magnitude of the problem facing the industry, they do little to help draw the solution that Tull urges. On this score, it’s more instructive to consider the micro example: the tactics employed by individual women who have met and coped with the range of factors advanced by sociologists to explain obstacles – socialization and early education, systemic barriers in schools and within organizations (recruitment and promotion), exclusion from formals networks, communication styles, self-efficacy and choice, as well as competing life priorities – and have managed to negotiate successful ICT careers. These tactics may provide guidance that can help shape strategies designed to drive more female inclusion in the industry and at management levels.

Bernadette Wightman, president, Cisco Canada
Bernadette Wightman, president, Cisco Canada

Bernadette Wightman’s experience building a career at Cisco Systems, for example, may support some rethinking of assumptions made about barriers to women’s success in ICT, while suggesting action items that may help move the numbers needle for women at large. Her career path came via sales and channel development – rather than product engineering – a pattern for successful advancement that is a typical route for males in IT as well. Wightman’s career has taken her to lead Cisco teams in the UK, the Middle East, across Russia, Ukraine and other CIS countries, and now Canada; a supportive family has accommodated her extensive travel with the help of better communications technology.

But when asked to identify the key success factors in her own experience, Wightman took special pains to focus on the importance of strong mentorship which had “huge impact on my personal development, confidence, authenticity and therefore, impact” and on the role of a particular male mentor who promoted her to her first director position, urged her to continue to speak out as a “disrupter” and promised, if awkward moments occurred, to “cover, I’ve got your back.”

To ‘pay it forward’, Wightman determined to build a diversity program within Cisco based on “three keys” she learned from another mentor, then CEO of McKinsey: the person at the top has to support the initiative, you need female role models, and you need female only training that will allow women to retain authenticity and support group networking. To address the third requirement, Wightman launched JUMP, a program designed to groom high potential women for more senior management positions, tackling diversity issues within Cisco top down by establishing role models while developing a stronger female talent pipeline. “We found we could bring women into the organization at the director and above level, but we weren’t able to bring women from being individual contributors to the first level of management,” she noted. “We weren’t growing our own female population. We were recruiting at the top, but we had this gap in the middle.” Since launch six years ago, the program has wrestled with the notion that ICT career development is out of reach for women and has the numbers to demonstrate the contrary: to date, more than 1,100 women globally have benefited from JUMP, and in Canada, 45 women have been involved the program (in year two here) and have received promotions as a result.

Programs like JUMP, corporate leadership on diversity (Cisco’s global executive composition is now 50 percent female), and strong leadership within individual country organizations can make the difference: when Wightman arrived as Canadian president, there was one female exec; today the organization has been transformed with the leadership team just over 40 percent female, women in sales management and more females represented on hiring panels.

Under Wightman’s leadership, Cisco is also engaged in outreach to the broader community. To coincide with opening of its new Toronto Innovation Centre, Cisco Canada has launched the Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle, a program that will provide female entrepreneurs with support in the form of free business/technology training, zero cost financing for network/communications investments, and innovation resources. Each female business leader will be assigned a University of Waterloo intern who will work with Cisco engineers and the Cisco dev/net community, using the Innovation Centre facility as they work to help entrepreneurs execute on digital strategy.

Cisco’s program activities are by no means isolated – the Dell Women’s Entrepreneurship Network has operated on a global basis and in Canada for several years, and similar education, networking and mentorship goals have been institutionalized by a number of organizations, including women’s associations. The WCT, for example, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, provides digital leadership skills training, an extensive network (11 chapters across Canada, including a recently launched public sector chapter in Ottawa), as well as two discrete cross-industry, cross-country mentorship programs – an 18-year-old advice and counseling program, and the more recently launched career sponsorship initiative, the Protégé Project aimed at advancing young women with promise, which each seek to address gender barriers to women’s success in ICT.

Joanne Stanley, executive director, WCT
Joanne Stanley, executive director, WCT

According to Joanne Stanley, executive director of WCT, the association is set to launch a campaign this year to ask Canadian companies to disclose and improve their numbers on female employment in tech occupations. Gender parity is a topical issue, she said, and many companies are now searching for answers on where to find additional female resources. The issue is also benefitting from the “right political climate” and WCT is now devoting recent Status of Women Canada funding to attracting business leaders to discuss best practices in developing female tech talent – “what works, what doesn’t, and what should businesses and outside organizations be doing,” she added.

Considering the numbers – and indeed Randstad findings – engaging business leaders in the search for solutions is critical. Stanley argued that the conditions identified in the “definitive” research on women in technology, the Athena Project, continue to hold sway: the “women chilly climate” or culture in tech firms, isolation in the workplace, an unclear advancement path and lack of network support, lack of role models and mentors, and need for greater work/life balance. The notion that there are systemic, culturally unfriendly attitudes towards women “is a tough message to deliver to company leaders, which tend to be male,” Stanley said. And though the association offers no quick fixes, it can advise on or provide mentorship programs to build the cohort of middle and senior managers, who in turn – as in Wightman’s case – can accelerate the process of inclusion.

But “it’s a bit of catch 22: the fewer women you have at the top, the more difficult it is to change the culture,” she concluded, a final argument for more star leaders who can address gaps in the broad transformational process that greater inclusion of women in ICT will require.


Mary Allen is managing editor at InsightaaS. 1991, while on an academic exchange in Moscow researching the role of women in the Red Army, she travelled to the first “Gender Conference” in nearby Dubna on the same day the failed anti-Gorbachev coup was mounted in Red Square. “It was kind of crazy to leave the revolution for a women’s event, especially since I was not officially allowed to travel, and because the subways were all blocked off for security reasons,” she recalls. “But it was the first women’s conference there!”




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