Gender parity still a distant dream for IT sector

Studies show companies with a diverse employee base have higher sales and larger market shares. So why do women account for just one-quarter of the IT workforce?

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You’ve come a long way, baby. That jingle from a 1970s Virginia Slims cigarette ad was meant to signal a new era of equality for women. A male voiceover proclaimed that women had the right to vote, earn wages and now, finally, we had our own ciggy, “tailored for the feminine hand.”

The world has changed dramatically since the ’70s when the feminist movement reached a fever pitch. Fifty years on, women make up half the workforce, are employed in every industry and, in some cases, we’re even running the show.

The transition from little lady to independent powerhouse has been an uphill climb, and the battle is ongoing, especially in the tech sector where women still have a poor showing.

The National Centre for Women in Technology compiled some interesting statistics around gender parity in tech. It shows that women make up just 25 per cent of the professional IT workforce. Perhaps more telling is the showing of women holding the CIO position at Fortune 500 companies in 2015: only 17 per cent.

Even in some of the more progressive tech companies in the world — Facebook, Google and Twitter — women represent less than one-third of professional staff.

That baffles Jennifer Liu, one of the organizers of Ladies Learning Code in Halifax, which offers introductory and advanced coding classes to children and adults. Liu is also a project manager with IBM, where she says women are well represented in tech roles. Her team has close to a 50/50 split of men and women, which, she says, makes good sense for the business — and beyond.

“If we have gender equity in the workplace we can increase the whole industry’s performance,” says Liu.

In other firms, the picture isn’t so rosy. In a recent post on gender parity in IT, executive editor of CNET News Roger Cheng called out tech giants Microsoft, Twitter and Google for their lack of female representation, particularly in technical and leadership positions. In those companies, women hold only 14 per cent of technical positions and 22 per cent of leadership roles.

Those figures are important, says Cheng, because they demonstrate that only a small number of women have influence at the top rungs of industry’s corporate ladder: product development and business strategy.

That’s not just harmful to women, he argues. It’s bad for business. “Studies show that companies with different points of view, market insights and approaches to problem solving have higher sales, more customers and larger market share than their less-diverse rivals.”

Some academics suggest that tokenism is affecting perceptions around women in positions of influence and authority in tech. With women making up about a quarter of the professional IT workforce, there’s just enough of a critical mass to gloss over the lack of diversity, says Christin Wiedemann, communications director for the Society for Canadian Women in Science Technology.

“There’s a lot of that ‘token woman’ mentality going on still. It creates a superficial view that the problem is solved so we stop talking about it,” says Wiedemann. “I don’t know if it’s in any way related to the fact it feels like women’s liberation has stalled over the last two decides, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a relationship.”

Image courtesy of Free Digital Photos

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