Women in technology love to talk about the lack of women in technology, especially those who reside at the top. So on Jan. 1, 2012, when Virginia Rometty takes the helm of IBM Corp. as its first female chief executive officer, joining Meg Whitman as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co. as one of the few women in charge of a high-profile tech company, we should interpret this as success, right?
Probably not. As many in the tech industry argue, the dearth of women in the industry overall contributes to that lack of representation at the C-suite level. And the lack of women in the industry can be traced back to the small numbers who pursue relevant degrees in science and tech.
"It's always encouraging to see women take on leadership positions of such global and influential firms, but I would not interpret that as success," said Mic Berman, chief operating officer of Toronto-based FreshBooks, an online billing service.
Ms. Berman, who has a wide range of experience in the tech industry, explained that the number of women in leadership roles at all levels in tech companies is declining – and that needs to change.
The general consensus is that getting girls interested in tech and science at an early age will eventually even out the ranks. One way to do this would be to give the science and tech industry an image makeover, by rebranding it as a creative and social experience. It's time to dig deep into our collective psyche and ask why young girls view technology and related disciplines as uninspiring and intimidating.
Mary Wells, associate dean of outreach for the Faculty of Engineering at Ontario's University of Waterloo, observes that many young girls perceive the field of technology to be uncreative and fostering a solitary existence.
"Many girls and women don't make the connection between technology and people," Prof. Wells explained. "If you ask a child to sketch an engineer building a bridge, invariably you see an engineer alone in the picture with tools around him. If you ask a child to sketch a doctor, obviously if there is a doctor, there is a patient," she said.
Prof. Wells suggests that getting girls interested in technology as early as age five, and certainly by Grade 5, holds the key for their future engagement. To further that goal, the University of Waterloo's science and engineering faculties have, since 1991, been running a science and technology camp for children. The camp employs various tactics to keep girls interested, such as having a strong female presence in the room and emphasizing that science and technology are professions that help create a better world.
In Grade 1, the gender ratio at the camp is about 60 per cent boys to 40 per cent girls. By Grade 5, that shifts to 80 per cent boys, 20 per cent girls. Somewhere between Grades 1 and 5, girls decide that technology or science camp isn't the right place for them. (The school is currently looking at data to determine whether attending the camp has an effect on later enrolment rates.)
The scene at the science camp is consistent with the ratios of men and women entering their first year of engineering studies. Across Canada, the number of women graduating with a degree in engineering, architecture and related fields has increased slightly since 1992 but still sits at just over 20 per cent, according to a 2007 Statistics Canada report. The number of women graduating from university increased in every field in the 1992-2007 period – except in mathematics, computer sciences and information sciences.
In the United States, women comprise only 25 per cent of all so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs, according to the Department of Commerce. In Canada, women constitute only 22 per cent of occupations in the labour force relating to the natural sciences and engineering, according to a Research Council of Canada report last year.
For women who rue their bachelor of arts degrees, there are opportunities to embrace their inner geek and perhaps make a career switch. A recent event hosted by a Toronto-based not-for-profit group called Ladies Learning Code offered a collaborative and social atmosphere more like a summer camp event than a training session.
The group was launched last June by Heather Payne and, judging by the popularity of its monthly events, has hit a chord with women. A recent session on the basics of WordPress sold out in three minutes with more than 100 people joining a waiting list.
Ms. Payne, whose background is in marketing, sees the initiative as one way to make technology more appealing to women and get them into the field.
"Technology is much more of a creative endeavour than people give it credit for," she said. "But if you don't get into it early on, it can be very intimidating."
Leah Eichler is a senior editor at Thomson Reuters who writes about women, their careers and success. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org