I’ve been told that when the tech industry started growing, employment scholars were optimistic that this new sector would be free from gender stereotypes and occupational segregation because it had no historically-rooted “justifications” like physical strength or competencies in care for them. This optimism, however, did not last as numerous studies have shown that women face particular obstacles when it comes to fair treatment and career opportunities in IT (Information Technology)—just as they do in other male-dominated fields.
A male-dominated field
Many studies have taken an in-depth look at the low proportion of women and girls choosing to study in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) including IT 1Insights on Canadian Society, Statistics Canada
Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) programs at university
Dec. 2013; some have found that stereotypes about programmers as well as negative experiences in the classroom are some of the factors that explain this phenomenon 2Open Source Business Resource
Redefining "Women's Work": Tensions Between Technology, Entrepreneurship, and Social Reproduction
July 2011, 3Report of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, House of Commons
Women in Skilled Trades and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Occupations
2015. Nevertheless, some women do enter and stay in the IT industry, and there is a growing body of work examining their experiences. International studies paint a relatively dire portrait of the realities of women in tech.
They show how the field’s masculine culture and gender bias create a host of problems for women, including harassment and hostile work environments, leading many of them to leave the industry 4Journal of Technology Management and Innovation
"Disappearing Women": A Study of Women Who Left the UK ICT Sector
2010. They also show how women move more slowly up the corporate ladder and are rare at the top—which is true of many industries and has been studied extensively in management studies 5Relations industrielles
Exploring the Career Pipeline: Gender Differences in Pre-Career Expectations
2011. In Canada, women represent roughly 25% of workers in the tech industry, 19% of workers in technological occupations and roughly 20% of people in management positions in the Information and Communications Technologies sector (Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey, 2016, cited by a Women in Communications and Technology report in 2017). Research on women in IT in Canada has yielded results similar to those in other developed nations 6Women & Entreprise Working Paper, University of Ottawa, Telfer School of Management / CATA WIT Forum
Gender Challenges of Women in the Canadian Advanced Technology Sector
A seemingly different Quebec
In Quebec, women’s representation in IT is similar to Canada’s. In 2015, the Chaire Claire-Bonenfant – Femmes, savoirs et sociétés (Université Laval) teamed up with TECHNOCompétences and began working on a project funded by Status of Women Canada. One of its goals was to document and understand the realities of women in the IT sector in Quebec. The research team from the Chaire is composed of two researchers specialized in IT (with many years’ experience in the industry) and two researchers specialized in women’s studies and employment equity. We conducted semi-structured interviews with managers and high-potential women in three large organizations (software development, IT consulting and video games).
We found many similarities but also some seemingly notable differences between the industry in Quebec and in the rest of Canada (see first results). These revolved mainly around two themes.
One difference is that the women we met felt they were generally well accepted in the industry and did not feel that it was particularly harsh or unfair to them as women—although some occurrences of unfair treatment and harassment were found. They did, however, recognize that it was a predominantly masculine field which meant they had to adhere to certain norms.
Another difference concerns parental leave and work-life balance. Quebec has a generous program for maternity, parental and paternal leave, that IT workers—especially those currently in their thirties—take seriously. Organizations and work teams were generally respectful of employees and managers that take these leaves. However, many agreed that temporarily leaving work, for whatever reason, often meant leaving behind influential networks and sacrificing career advancement in the short and intermediate term.
Where there are true efforts, there is optimism
The “good” news is that IT companies and IT-intensive industries (e.g. finance, online retail, etc.) face challenges in recruiting and retaining talent, which makes it a prime industry in which to see the “business case” for diversity in action. “Women in IT” is a hot topic, and business leaders generally recognize that women are an “under-exploited” talent pool. Of course, this doesn’t always go smoothly, as recent events at Google illustrate.
Recruiting and retaining women means more than just getting girls interested in pursuing studies in IT and offering flexible schedules permitting work-life balance.
In the end, what employers must understand is that recruiting and retaining women means more than just getting girls interested in pursuing studies in IT (that’s not to say that this isn’t a great place to start!), and offering flexible schedules permitting work-life balance (although these are much appreciated by employees and managers alike). These practices, although useful, hide another reality, namely, that work-life balance usually means working extra hours from home 7Recherches sociographiques
Dans la nouvelle économie, la conciliation entre la vie privée et la vie professionnelle passe par… l’augmentation des heures de travail!
2005. It also means taking a hard look at the masculine culture present in these high-performance jobs, as well as the subtle ways in which organizational practices and gender bias can pose obstacles to women pursuing careers in IT.