Closing the gender gap

New uses of IT could boost attractiveness of industry, says Wendy Hall


New uses of IT could boost attractiveness of industry, says Wendy Hall

Earlier this year the British Computer Society conducted a survey of UK schoolgirls, focusing on the failure to attract more women into IT. Could this failure be traced back to women's formative school years, when career choices are considered and further education routes formalised?

The survey produced notes of both encouragement and discouragement. However, its fundamental message was that budding female enthusiasm for computing and IT is being dampened. Although half the respondents appreciated the potential of IT for further study or as a career option, a large number of girls associate computing with mundane office or secretarial work. Clearly, careers advisers and the IT profession itself are failing to engage girls with a more exciting vision of IT as a rewarding and varied career option.

The number of women in IT has been falling since the 1980s and is now thought to be about 20% of the total workforce. Industry and government initiatives have made little difference, but the BCS has not been complacent. 

Bringing more women into IT

Although I was only the second female president in the 50-year history of the society, the BCS has a lively women's group and last year we launched a Women in IT Award in the BCS IT Professional Awards. This recognises organisations that encourage women into their IT departments and offer opportunities for career advancement.

We are about to launch a BCS women's forum that will investigate and make recommendations to business and government on how the widening gender divide can be bridged.

Several initiatives have been launched over the years with the intention of increasing the number of women in IT, and more are needed. Organisations including Women Into IT and the Women in IT Forum, sponsored by the Department of Trade & Industry, are very active.

Past and current initiatives include activities for girls aged 11 to 13 - the view being that they get more set in their ideas as they get older than this. Activities include school workshops and computer clubs, work with the Girl Guides, awards for high achievement in exams and bringing girls into an IT supplier for a week.

Careers advisers can explain to girls that a break of five years, for example to have children, should not be a major career setback. IT is a modern industry, where specific skills are in short supply and companies often quite flexible.

IT changes will bridge the gap

Careers workshops have been run for university students. These work better if several employers join together to talk about working in IT. Students differentiate this from the traditional "milk round" in which employers sell their own company and interview people individually.

Only 17% of UK computer science degree entrants are women; most of these are from overseas. Many women are put off careers in technology because of the lack of role models. Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, lamented recently the lack of women working in the technology and computer engineering sectors.

Men dominate IT and many other sectors at all levels. There is often an "old boys' network". The impact of male dominance is felt in several ways. For example, a female entrepreneur can get funding bids turned down because "you are single, female, and probably going to get pregnant", regardless of her circumstances. Getting a man to front the bid can turn rejections into offers. Coming clean later can get venture capitalists to be more positive about future bids from women.

Yet my hunch is that the rapidly changing nature of IT applications will be the solution to the gender imbalance. IT is already broadening its role and embracing other disciplines. Biology and medicine - both subjects already attracting a high number of female students - are incorporating IT into their syllabuses, while the growth in demand for forensic computer expertise is attracting more women into IT security.

Women use IT as much as men, but are only minimally involved in either the hardware or software design process. But once girls start seeing, perhaps via the media, how IT is an increasingly fundamental part of the more "glamorous" professions, we will see a turnaround. And I believe that is nearer than we think.

Wendy Hall is professor of computer science at the University of Southampton

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