A special look at opportunities for women in technology and engineering.

By: Trina Alexson, head of Advanced Services for the Service Provider Segment at Cisco Canada


In the autumn of 1976, women in a first-year engineering program in Canada were selected for a study that continued through their undergraduate studies and onto employment. In their first year questionnaire, in response to a question about who tried to discourage them when then enrolled in engineering, the most common answer was their mother!

Back then, we could say the same about the professions of law and medicine, but flash forward to today – universities are graduating the same number (or more!) women graduates in those disciplines. Compare this to engineering where enrollment of females peaked in 2001 a 20.6%. Over the past decade it has stabilized between 17-18%.

Although women are flocking to study law, the profession has a retention issue with its female graduates. Unfortunately the prime years for child-rearing coincides with the partner track and many women leave because they struggle to achieve the right work-life balance. Law firms are striving to reinvent themselves in response.

In contrast, technology careers can offer great work-life balance – the availability of flex hours and working remotely using technology allows the integration of corporate and family life.

Canadian engineer Mala Devlin graduated from McGill University, married and has three children, including two now in university who both study technology. She now works for Cisco Systems in San Jose, California. “Over the years, I’ve held a variety of roles.  All of them were demanding in their own way, and none of them were jobs that were routine or simple.  The big factor that helped me juggle the time between home, work and kids was that all my work was results based.  In most cases, I was able to negotiate a flexible work schedule. Of course, this meant I might come in early, leave early, work late, and basically figure out how best to juggle my work and family schedules.”

Some think that low enrollment of women in technology fields stems from the fact that when young girls are choosing their career path in high school they are at an age where giving back and contributing to society is important. Maybe it is easier to make the leap between giving back and law and medicine, and not so much to engineering and technology fields.

Gail Carmichael from Carleton University in Ottawa might disagree. She started as a creative and artistic high school student. In her younger years she had created newsletters using hand-me-down computers for her Girl Guide group. She decided to study computer science because she was interested in computer graphics.

“The best thing about getting into computing is that your opportunities are limitless,” she says. “Of course there are the traditional career paths where you can develop software or websites for companies that specialize in that sort of thing, but if you think about it, computing touches just about every area of our lives. No matter what you are passionate about, there is some way to improve that activity or pursuit with computing. There are opportunities in non-high-tech companies who need someone to develop new computing solutions in their domain, and you can go out there and create your own opportunities by starting your own business. The possibilities are really quite exciting.”

Carmichael kept going with her studies and recently completed her PhD in Computer Science. An example of her work in educational gaming is ‘Gram’s House.’

Research has shown that school-age girls have a preference for puzzle games and care about making a social difference. So Carmichael is developing a game which combines puzzles in the backdrop of supporting Gram staying in her own home as she ages. Her goal is to make learning and education more engaging and accessible.

Another factor often called out in low participation of women in technology fields is lack of role models. An example of one organization trying to rectify this is Canadian Women in Technology (CANWIT).  For professional women already participating in the technology field, CANWIT offers opportunities for networking and education.

In addition to their networking and education events, CANWIT has established an e-mentoring program – matching experienced women with women starting their careers in the technology arena.

“CANWIT knows that mentorship matters, and we’re working to encourage more women to pursue successful careers in their different technology fields, by connecting them with the networks, support and knowledge they need to excel,” says Emily Boucher, Executive Director of CANWIT.

Mentoring has come to corporations too. Cisco Systems implemented a reverse mentoring program where diversity employees (women and underrepresented minorities) mentored senior executives. The goal was to help the executives understand the new workforce and challenges diverse employees might have to help them better select, manage, and inspire their workforce. It was well received by the executives, who enjoyed getting new perspectives but also by the mentors because it gave them access to senior people in the organization.

Cisco Systems has also used mentoring youth to channel some of the “giving back” energy of its workforce. Two years ago women in the Toronto office were introduced to an all-girl Cisco Networking Academy class in a Brampton high school.  Thus began a relationship that brought Cisco women to the classroom and the girls to Cisco’s downtown office to meet with female technology professionals and see some technology in action. One of the highlights was using Cisco Telepresence to videoconference with an all-girl Cisco Networking Academy in Kenya, Africa.

Corporations care because technology is making its way into every sector from real estate to banking, to health care and education. The demand for technology workers is increasing and employers want the benefits of a diverse workforce – including more access to top talent, better products through the inclusion of multiple viewpoints.

Regardless of what mom says, many Canadian female engineers and technologists are finding satisfying careers and helping to change the world. But what happened to the class of 1976? Well, in the final survey many of the mothers had changed their attitude completely and were pleased by their daughter’s unusual accomplishment!


Trina Alexson is the head of Advanced Services for the Service Provider Segment at Cisco Canada. In her role, she leads engineering teams that work directly with Cisco Service Provider customers to help them plan, build and operate their networks. Trina has over 25 years experience in the information technology industry and has been with Cisco since 1996. She is also co-author of “Bit by Bit,” a career guide for women aged 15-25 who are considering technology careers.