Gearing up for engineering success: CATAWIT comments
By Elizabeth Howell, Ottawa Business Journal Staff
August 27, 2009

As female techies leave the field, new approaches emerge to attract the younger cohort

During a week smack in the middle of a sweltering August, a group of teenage girls built Lego structures, went geocaching in the woods and did other activities to polish their math and science skills.

And no, it wasn't at a typical summer camp.

"It's focused on encouraging young women to pursue careers in technology, to open their eyes to the possibility of those careers, and to deal with some of the myths and misconceptions of what those careers are all about," said Rob White.

Mr. White – IBM's vice-president of mergers and acquisitions – was promoting his company's annual EXITE – EXploring Interests in Technology and Engineering – technology camps for girls. The decade-old program has run each summer in Ottawa for the past three years.

"We want to provide (the girls) with some real examples of individuals who have been successful as women with careers in technology, to expose them to that and then to provide them with some mentorship as they pursue their academic career," he added.

The company doesn't keep track of the 300 students who have gone through the program so far in Toronto and Ottawa, but anecdotally IBM has said at least three former EXITE campers from Ottawa are now doing engineering or technical degrees in college or university.

It's been 20 years, at least, since organizations such as IBM first held camps like EXITE to lure young women into the traditionally male-dominated worlds of tech and engineering.

But Canadian female enrolment in these programs declined just after the dot-com bust of the early 2000s and has still not recovered, according to a 2005 survey conducted by Michael Campbell Robinson Consulting Inc.

With a paucity of statistics available about the effectiveness of youth camps, some organizations are turning to different models to attract young women to these fields.

BringingITon.com is one of these efforts. Run by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance with provincial and federal support, the website includes blogs, forums and other forms of social networking that aims to get young women chatting with each other about technology careers.

"It's a high-destination social networking site that talks to these young women in a language they understand, and so will be engaging that community in a much bigger way to think about careers in science and tech," said Joanne Stanley, managing director of the CATA Women in Technology forum.

Mentoring is also an important method, particularly when that mentoring involves young female role models in the industry.

The University of Calgary's outreach program – run by the dean of engineering, Elizabeth Cannon – specifically recruits female role models to speak at high schools. This effort over three years has increased female enrolment in the university's IT programs by about 25 per cent, said Ms. Stanley.

Enrolment, however, is only part of the problem.

"A significant number of women going into technology programs don't stay," pointed out Wendy Cukier, a technology researcher at Ryerson University who also studies female recruitment and retention.

"It isn't because the substance is difficult; it's because the environment is less supportive than it should be, particularly in the highly dominated areas ... if we're serious about it, camps are a good start, but you need a comprehensive and systematic strategy for the resources and support women need."

She suggested that positive reinforcement should begin in elementary school, that young women be constantly exposed to females in the field, and to run programs like camps and seminars regularly – making sure these opportunities are open to all students rather than just the ones that are interested.