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What's Keeping Women Out of IT?

By Anna Martelli Ravenscroft

Women have been involved in computers since the time of Babbage's analytical engine. Ada Lovelace is widely credited with writing the first computer program (an algorithm to calculate Bernoulli numbers), and the programmers of the first modern computer, the ENIAC, were six women who had only block diagrams and wiring schematics to work from. Several of them went on to distinguished careers in programming [1]. Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL) and the first compiler were both written by Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who also helped develop the instruction code for UNIVAC, the first commercially available computer in the United States [2]. IBM Fellow Emeritus Frances Allen developed program optimization, language-independent optimizers and Ptran (the IBM parallel translation system), laying the foundation for today's high-speed computing systems. In 2006, she was the first woman to be awarded the Turing Award.

But, if you look around today, women are woefully underrepresented in information technology (IT) in general and in programming in particular. Even more worrisome, the rate of undergraduate admission of women to computer science (CS) majors, in particular, has been trending downward. For example, in 1986, approximately 36 percent of the U.S. graduates in CS were women; in 2004, 17 percent were women [3]. This is not exclusively a U.S. problem though. Worldwide, women represent less than 30 percent of the IT workforce, while comprising approximately half of the total workforce [3]. The situation appears to be better in many non-Western countries, particularly those with a more recent development of IT culture, such as Mauritius [4].

This deplorable situation has many causal factors, and has been studied extensively since the 1980s, yet the underlying causes are so intertwined that it is difficult to separate them. Some sociologists suggest that many of these causes may reflect the pervasive effect of the gender system. Confounding the issue are technological and cultural changes.

Entry and retention of women in IT are equally challenging issues, but this article focuses on why so few females enter the IT field. The most commonly cited factors include discrimination, low self-efficacy, negative perceptions of IT, lack of familiarity, lack of role models and mentors, the “geek” stereotype, and even definitions of IT itself. Let's explore each of these factors briefly.

Discrimination and bias are both overt and covert. From disparaging comments and harassment, to being ignored by teachers who interact with the more confident, knowledgeable students, to assumptions of less competence, to being assigned to less technical tasks, women are steered away from technical areas and toward the “softer” aspects of this profession such as sales, marketing and support functions, or even away from IT entirely. Awareness and active interventions continue to be necessary, but discrimination is not the only barrier to entry.

Familiarity and experience with computers has been proposed as a factor. Prior to instant messaging (IM), blogs, SMS, Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking services, K-12 children primarily used their computers at home to play games, which originally catered to boys. Some recent progress has been made in creating games that attract girls as well as boys. Since social networking became popular, computer and internet usage by girls has caught up to that of boys in most cases, [5] yet girls continue to display less interest in computer courses than boys, starting around middle school [6].

It has become “common wisdom” that females view computers as tools for accomplishing other ends (socially-useful, helping people, etc.), while males view computers as ends in themselves (fascinated by the computer itself, studying the internals, hacking the kernel, writing peripheral drivers, etc.). However, this wisdom was overturned at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), a leader in the effort to increase female enrollment in CS. As the program changed, women and men were able to expand their focuses to include technical and non-technical interests [7].

Role models and mentors are helpful, depending on other cultural factors. In the United States, girls with role models or mentors were more likely to pursue or remain in an IT career [8], but in the few countries with high rates of female enrollment, there are often few female role models and mentors, as IT is a new field in those countries [4]. Culture, particularly the perception of IT as a “masculine” career, clearly affects the need for role models and mentors.

Concerns about long hours, schedule flexibility, and work/family balance may deter entry; however, women are well-represented in medicine and law, which share the same issues. Certainly, these concerns play a role, but are perhaps a secondary factor, reinforcing other barriers.

A more significant factor is the effect of low self-efficacy among girls. Self-efficacy refers to our belief in our own capability. As early as middle school, girls underestimate their abilities with computers even when their abilities are objectively as good as those of boys. This low self-efficacy is then exacerbated by college and university “gatekeeper” courses designed to weed out the less competent, but which mostly weed out the less confident, who are disproportionately female [7,9].

The perception of IT courses also influences entry. Non-IT undergraduate women (but not men) perceived undergraduate CS courses as more difficult and less easy to pass than coursework to become a surgeon [10]! In secondary school, computer-related courses too often over-emphasize office applications, leading to the impression that a career in IT means “being a secretary” [11]. The IT culture is also viewed as elitist, obsessive and anti-social. The “geek stereotype” is commonly the reference group for each student's self-assessment, leaving those who value social interaction or who are unsure of their “place” in the field feeling that they don't belong. Again, this mismatch disproportionately affects women, who are more likely to value social instances and interaction with people above technical knowledge and skills [12].

Finally, IT is frequently defined too restrictively, excluding or ignoring areas such as Web design, animation, bioinformatics, statistical processing, educational technology, and experimental design. This too-narrow definition tends to exclude those who might otherwise enter through a “non-traditional” pathway.

So, what's being done about the situation?

CMU, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other universities are addressing these issues with new introductory-level courses that emphasize the use of frameworks, graphical user interfaces (GUIs), and special-purpose scripting languages, which provide students a chance to discover the creative potential of computers. Most of these courses are too new to know what effects they’ve had, but the signs are positive. More students appear to be taking these courses and continuing with additional CS courses than in the traditional progression [13]. More university courses include opportunities for pair programming and group work, countering the “loner” stereotype. Project IT Girl, part of the Girlstart Program, focuses on teaching middle school girls how to "change the world through the use of IT," increasing their interest in pursuing IT careers [14]. Conferences, magazines, publishers, researchers, universities, and schools are all working to address the situation and progress is being made, but more work and research needs to be done.

For thorough coverage of all these topics, see [15]. For a more concise treatment, see [16]. The best introduction to the situation remains the classic work, [7], which describes the CMU discoveries and resulting program changes.

IEEE Women in Engineering is dedicated to issues affecting women engineers. The group encourages both women and men to join in helping to accomplish its goals to inspire, engage, encourage, and empower IEEE women worldwide [www.ieee.org/women].

IEEE Women in Engineering (IEEE WIE) Magazine, a new publication that will be issued twice a year to IEEE WIE members, launched its premiere issue in January. The publication's articles integrate engineering subjects with current issues facing society including careers, health care, medicine, law, governance and women's issues. A print edition will be produced for distribution at symposiums and other events throughout the year.

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