Read all about the mission, mandates and activities of CanWIT

One doesn’t have to flick through the digital staff directories of the top technology firms for long to notice what’s missing.

The women.

The lack of females working as programmers and developers represents a troubling trend that has everyone from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to Digital Nova Scotia president Ulrike Bahr-Gedalia sounding the alarm for change.

Females represent less than 20 per cent of the technology workforce in Nova Scotia and only 24 per cent nationwide.

Computer science graduates of Canadian universities are predominantly male and although females are graduating from post-secondary institutions at historic rates, those studying science, technology, engineering, math and computer science is dropping.

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The trend continues in the boardroom and south of the border.

Just eight per cent of all venture-backed technology startups in the U.S. were founded by women. The Founder Institute reports that of the 415 tech companies launched in the past three years, only 87 were led by women.

Deloitte’s list of the 50 fastest-growing tech firms in Canada shows just 14 have women within executive ranks.

So what gives?

History, stereotypes, ignorance and trends, according to Emily Boucher, executive director of Canadian Women in Technology, also known as CanWIT.

“Studies show women list work-life balance, a lack of role models and a lack of mentors as the three main reasons women leave, or never enter, the technology sector,” Boucher said from her home in Halifax.

“The lack of mentorship is a big one and it’s another reason why we don’t see a lot of role models. It’s hard to see yourself at the top if you don’t see anyone who looks like you.”

The study she’s referring to was conducted by the Information and Communications Technology Council in 2005. The results indicated that 52 per cent of Canadian women working in the science, technology, engineering and math sectors would leave their jobs within the first 10 years of their careers.

With university enrolment in these disciplines on the decline, most notably at the graduate level, and a national skills shortage, Boucher said the figures are “significant” and they show a need for real change.

It’s an issue that the women (and men) of CanWIT are targeting head on. The organization launched the Atlantic chapter of the national organization two years ago and additional groups are now organizing in P.E.I. and New Brunswick.

“When I look at CanWIT as a national organization, we don’t see ourselves as a women’s only club,” Boucher said. “We see the importance of bringing men into the discussion.  A lot of our best supporters are men already working in the sector. Many women would say some of their best mentors have been men. The point is, there should be more diversity.”

Groups like CanWIT, educational non-profit Ladies Learning Code, The Girls Tech League, CompCamp and Techsploration are working to change the tide, through mentorship programs, affordable courses and after-school programs and competitions.

Bahr-Gedalia said all of the groups are working against the perceptions and stereotypes, and introducing young girls to the breadth of possibilities a career in technology could give them.

“There is this perception that the work consists of endlessly sitting at a desk and hammering away on code but in reality, the nature of the job is problem solving,” she said. “Rather than being a solitary profession, it requires a lot of communication with others.”

Boucher agreed, adding that part of her job is to break down the word technology and show women and young girls there are opportunities abound both in core and supportive roles.