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What’s advertising got to do with it?

How “Mad Men” turned a generation of women off technology

What’s advertising got to do with it?

During the past 18 months, women’s labor force participation in the United States and in Canada have been significantly impacted by the global pandemic, with many women either being laid off or having to reduce working hours due to other caretaking responsibilities. As CIO of one of Canada’s largest software companies, I know that the more diversity we build into teams and companies, the better we will be—both as people and as organizations.

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These unexpected outcomes of the pandemic are troubling across all sectors, but particularly in sectors like technology where women have historically been underrepresented. In 2020, women made up only 28.8% of technical roles in the United States; in 2019, women made up only 20% of technical roles in Canada.

But this hasn’t always been the case. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was an uptick in the percentage of women entering technical fields: between 1983 and 1984, women made up 37% of undergraduate computer science majors in the U.S., and in 1992 women made up 35% of university graduates in mathematics, computer and information sciences in Canada. But as we move into the 2000s, the number of women in these fields—and the number of women in technical roles—starts to decline.

So, why do we see this decline?

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THE MYTH OF GENDER AND TECHNOLOGY

Research points to a specific point in time when women started to become less interested in or comfortable with computers and technology. In the 1970s and 1980s, personal and home computers started to become a reality for many people in North America. To encourage consumers to purchase home computers, advertisers began to market the home computer as an educational tool for children (specifically boys), or as a toy for predominantly male hobbyists and gamers.

It was at this time that the myth of gender and technology—the assumption that men are fitter for and more interested in computers—started to become more widely accepted. And a decade later, there’s a downward trend of women entering the computing and technology workforce which continues throughout the 1990s.

So, how do you combat the advertising myth of gender and technology and hire more women into technical roles? It’s all about pipeline and retention.

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THE ONGOING PIPELINE PROBLEM

If there are fewer women pursuing graduate and undergraduate degrees in computing, then it stands to reason that we’re going to have fewer women entering the workforce in this discipline. And although research shows that teenage girls are now using computers and other technology devices at the same rate as their peers, boys are still much more likely to take on a technology-related career. So, what do we do?

We need programs in elementary and high schools designed to encourage girls into technology and computing. We need to find new ways to make technology fun with computer games or coding camps, and we need to help teachers become comfortable with technology or provide access to experts to help them. As they enter their high school years, we need to make sure that there is an availability of computing and coding classes or access in high schools.

Post-secondary education also presents a strong opportunity to connect with young women. Most are still deciding where they want to take their careers, and we need to demonstrate that an education in computing provides advancement in multiple career paths. This also requires more female mentorship and role models at the university level to show that coding and computing is a space that young women should pursue at the undergraduate level.

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THE RETENTION PROBLEM

But once women are in computing and technical roles, we still have a retention problem that needs to be addressed. Statistics show that a significant number of the women who do enter a computing career re-locate to a different career track. So, they’re not leaving the workforce, but they’re leaving roles and companies that are heavily technology focused.

This means that there’s still work to be done to retain this talent in the computing technology space. At OpenText, we’re committed to advancing and supporting women in the workplace. For example, we have an active Women in Technology Affinity Group that offers a forum for OpenText women and allies to connect, learn and accelerate growth and career development. One output of this group is our Women in Technology mentorship program, which is currently being scaled to accommodate more participants going forward.

We also recognize the importance of ensuring managers have the skills to support and help advance the careers of the people they manage, and we provide manager training designed to foster diversity and inclusion in our organization.

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And, at OpenText World 2021, our CEO and CTO Mark Barrenechea announced the OpenText ZERO Initiative. In addition to our commitment to net zero greenhouse gases by 2040 and zero waste from operations by 2030, the initiative includes key commitments to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion and achieve a majority diverse workforce by 2030.

I’m proud of our achievements but know that there is still more work to do, and I look forward to continuing to grow our diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at OpenText.

By finding new ways to make technical roles enticing—through training, mentorship, and advancement opportunities—and evaluating our individual biases and micro-inequalities within the industry, we can all contribute to dispelling the myth of gender and technology and create more space for girls and women in computing.

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Renee McKenzie is the SVP and chief information officer at OpenText. Follow Renee on LinkedIn.

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