IT Works to Attract More Women to Industry

by Jordan Richardson on January 5, 2011

The information and technology sector is widely considered a “boy’s club,” what with a mere 25% of the field being female.

Despite the fact that it is now 2011, outdated stereotypes still exist about various industries and about technology itself. Jokes are still told about “nerds” using computers or the roles of women in various occupations. The notion of computer science being the property of single males with unhealthy Star Wars fetishes is still something that exists, so it stands to reason that breaking the stereotypes still remains a concern as well.

Enter teacher Dan Harmer. As education reporter Kate Hammer reveals, Mr. Harmer may well be at the forefront of something unique when it comes to educating females about computer science.

In his years of experience at Cardinal Leger Secondary School in Brampton, Ontario, he noticed that his classes were mostly filled with boys. A few girls hung out in the back of the class, but that was about it. Last fall, Mr. Harmer changed the game and moved all of the girls from his Grade 10 computer science classes into one. It was a “no boys allowed” computer science class and, according to the teacher, “It worked, the intimidation factor was gone and the girls loved it.”

The extent to which females are put off by the “male nature” of information technology is hard to put a figure on. One thing that can’t be ignored, however, is the future of IT in general: according to reporting (PDF) based on data formulated by Statistics Canada, every province in the country is facing a skills shortage in IT.

U.S.-based networking company Cisco is trying to combat the trend by forming partnerships with schools like Mr. Harmer’s through Cisco Networking Academies. Cisco provides the entire curriculum, offering the equipment at a discount and providing learning tools for free. When female engineers at the Toronto offices of Cisco got wind of what was going on in Mr. Harmer’s class, they brought the students over for a visit.

It’s interesting to note that men outnumber women everywhere in the industry. Canada is particularly out of balance, however, especially when we look at numbers from the Cisco Academies. Internationally, women represent some 21% of Cisco Academy students. In Canada, it’s 9%.

“I think a lot of women don’t go into this field because they’re afraid of being the only girl,” said Hena Prasanna, a Cisco manager who met with Mr. Harmer’s girls. “When we asked the girls who worked in the tech industry, they said chubby guys with glasses. That’s the impression they had and we wanted to change that.”

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