New president wants BCS to lead drive to attract women into IT

The declining proportion of women in IT is hitting both IT projects and product developers, according to the new BCS president,...

The declining proportion of women in IT is hitting both IT projects and product developers, according to the new BCS president, Wendy Hall, who sees this issue as one of her challenges during her year in office.

Hall is only the second woman president in the society's 46-year history. She said this is a reflection of the relatively small and declining proportion of women in IT - now thought to be about 20% or less. Only about 16% of those following IT degree courses are women.

Although many IT users are women, they are greatly under represented in decision making, and the design of systems and user interfaces, said Hall.

There is no easy answer, she said. "We have to tackle this at every level, because there is a deeply ingrained culture that computing is geeky, and for boys," Hall said.

Last month's Working in IT Survey, conducted by Computer Weekly and recruitment company DP Connect, found that 72% of people surveyed thought that IT staff had a geeky image.

However, of the IT professionals questioned, 94% said communication skills were as important as technical knowhow in IT - traditionally an area where female professionals are particularly strong.

"There is evidence that at primary school there is not much difference between boys and girls in the use of computers, but as they approach adolescence, gender stereotyping kicks in, the boys push to the front, the girls do not want to look unfeminine," Hall said. "As they move on, girls see computing as geeky, or all about game playing.

"Girls will use a computer like they will drive a car, to get from A to B, knowing they do not have to be mechanics. But with IT they see careers as meaning you have got to understand how they work, you have got to be an engineer.

"As a result, it is not only women but also industry that is missing out."

Hall would like to change this, not least by getting the BCS to take a lead. The fact that the society now has a woman from the top of her field as president could help.

Hall is professor of computer science at Southampton University and head of the Department of Electronics and Computer Science.

She wants to work on ways for the BCS to encourage women to consider careers in IT. Changes in the membership structure voted through last month were designed partly to expand the membership generally, but other initiatives aimed specifically at women are on the way.

For example, work is under way to set up a forum on women's issues, a network in which the BCS will play a big part. Funding for the initiative is now being looked into.

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