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Solving IT skills shortage needs more women: ITAC

If the IT industry wants to seriously address the shortage of skilled workers facing the industry there’s one key area it must address: the industry’s gender imbalance and the lack of women choosing to pursue careers in information technology.

That’s one of the reason why the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) is launching a new initiative around ICT and women, including the commissioning of a research paper, moving to correct the gender imbalance on its own board of directors, and working with member companies to set concrete targets for gender inclusivity and setting plans to get there.

“We have a chronic shortage of highly qualified people in the ICT industry,” said Lynda Leonard, senior vice-president at ITAC. “We’re continually looking for strategies to improve the labour market, and one of the things that has been particularly challenging has been the involvement of women.”

Indeed, she noted the percentage of women in the IT industry has been holding steady throughout her career at far below representative levels, said Leonard, despite strong efforts by many companies to address the issue individually. And that’s making it harder to fill the skills gap as well.

“If we’re an industry that’s facing a chronic labour shortage and has a track record of not being able to appeal to half the population, that’s a real challenge,” said Leonard.

The industry has been trying to address the gender imbalance for sometime, through a variety of initiatives and programs. Both IBM and Microsoft have been active in the area. While with such a daunting challenge it’s useful to look at it from a variety of angles, but Leonard said it’s time to acknowledge the issue is larger than any one company can address. The effort needs to be pulled together with concrete goals set, and that’s something ITAC hopes to help facilitate.

ITAC is starting with its own board, which is drawn from its member companies, all leaders in the Canadian IT industry, and is predominately male. The organization is determined to change that within the next six months, having set the target last June.

“It reached the point where one on the men on the board said I think we need a concerted effort to address this. Not just rhetoric, but we need to state this isn’t even close to democratic standards so let’s change this,” said Leonard. “Finding those people to serve on the board is hard, but it doesn’t ever get addressed if you don’t make a commitment to do so.”

The next step is to look at the gender balance on the boards of ITAC’s member companies, in their executive suites, and in the member companies overall. A diversity forum has also been established by ITAC to gather best practices from companies that are making strides around gender diversity and share them with other companies.

The organization also commissioned a study called “ICT and Women” that Leonard said was essentially a literature review of the current thinking on the issue to help the organization understand the challenges. Among the conclusions? The industry and IT careers need to be re-defined and rebranded to appeal more to young girls, and be seen as cool, relevant and interesting. There need to be more female role-models to model careers and encourage education in IT fields and careers in the sector. As well, workplaces need to be more female-friendly and diversity encouraged throughout the organization.

Leonard said one of the biggest things she learned was the importance of measurement if you’re trying to create institutional change. It’s not enough to strive for change, the current situation needs to be measured to know where we stand, success needs to be defined and a plan created to get there.

“We may be doing a lot of things as an industry, but until we start establishing what our benchmarks are, what we want to see as the desired state, and we commit to achieving that, we’ll probably continue to see the engagement rates we currently have,” said Leonard. “I’ve been active in this area most of my career and it’s certainly cause for reflection. We need to sit back and consider what we’re doing wrong. But I’m inspired by what we’re doing now and what’s coming to the table.”

And trying gender inclusivity to the skills shortage may be the tipping-point that spurs stronger pan-industry action on the issue.

“Companies are commercial enterprises, and their motivations aren’t necessarily the same that motivate us as a society. They’re pursuing business objectives,” said Leonard. “The argument has to be made that diversity in all its forma helps companies fulfill business objectives.”

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