Why don’t girls choose Computing?

Gender imbalance in the IT industry has been in the press a lot recently.  This article in Computer Weekly nicely sums up the industry position – why is IT less attractive to women?  Wendy Grossman in the Guardian questions why women don’t seem to want to go into the industry, citing the example of Marissa Meyer as a role model that women don’t seem to be following.  Maggie Philbin, also in the Guardian raises the issue of gender stereotyping in games etc. and also the perception that older women are not users of technology.

From the age of 18 – 30 I spent my life working in the IT industry – with 3 years out for university.  Now as an IT / Computing teacher the gender imbalance bothers me.  We are offering GCSE Computing next year for the first time and have no girls doing it.  Does it matter if they are choosing subjects they enjoy and are good at? No.  Does it matter if they are not even considering a career choice they might find interesting and well paid? YES!

If course a choice at 14 does not limit career choices but it might make things a little more difficult.  I think role models are important.  Not just the high flying Marissa Mayer type of role models (although knowing she was profiled in Vogue might help some – but if she didn’t conform to society’s stereotype of what a successful woman “should” look like would Vogue have been interested?  Just saying…).  No I think girls need more immediate role models as well.  Thinking back to 6th form, I only switched to do geeky double-maths A-level when I saw there were girls doing it (I didn’t have the option of computing).  I realise how utterly SHALLOW that sounds but that is how my 16 year old self felt.

Personally I think there is a perception that the IT industry is male dominated, that computer science is a male choice and that this puts girls off choosing this as an option.  If you don’t study computing early on, you can still take it later.  However most of us only have one shot at an undergraduate degree and if you haven’t done Computer Science (as Mayer did) your level of entry into the IT industry will be that bit lower.  You can of course self-study at a later date but once life intervenes in the form of families and paying for mortgages, most just don’t have the time.

We need to get girls interested in Computer Science at a much earlier age – so they have the best chance of entering a potentially fantastic profession at the highest level they can.  Emma Mulqueeny of Rewired State has said the year 8 is too late, and I think she’s right.  Primary schools need to engage girls at a younger age in computing (actually all children).  In secondary schools we need to do more to attract younger girls to computer clubs (without making them pink).

I asked a class of year 10 students how they perceived the IT industry and computing as a career and all said male-dominated.  When asked why, the names Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg were mentioned – they’d never heard of Marissa Mayer.  It’s a vicious circle at the moment.  Girls are less likely to choose Computer Science degrees, so they are less likely to found high-profile startups and therefore be the kind of high-profile individuals that have books and films made about them.  Marissa Meyer, by completing both her undergraduate degree and her Masters, and not dropping out to move to California and found a company, is not the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Thinking back on my career, oddly I don’t ever recall there being a problem with the gender imbalance – at the time.  But with the benefit of hindsight and certainly the wisdom of age, it was definitely there.  Never enough to put me off the job but it offered certain discomfort.

At 18 I found myself in IBM’s Basingstoke offices as a pre-university employee.  There were women in the office so I didn’t really notice any gender issues.  But these women were admin assistants and at that age, I didn’t perceive the difference.  Every day, older male colleagues would comment on my clothes and the length of skirts I wore but somehow I normalised that.

Post University and on the IBM Graduate Trainee programme there was a fairly equal spread of men and women but as soon as I started out on client sites the differences became clear.  I always felt conscious of the age issue more than anything. Going out on a client site as a “consultant” at the age of 23 is frankly laughable.  I always felt I had something to prove.  One week spent at a big London bank with a suspicious team of men was awkward.  I invited myself down to the pub with them on Friday lunchtime and drank 2 pints of Guinness.  After that I was an accepted part of the team.  Sadly it wasn’t my work that sealed the deal but those two pints of Guinness. I was “one of the boys”.  I normalised that too.

Much later I was sent to Tokyo with a team of (male) clients to advise on a product.  During the week we were there, they “forgot” to invite me out for a meal in the evening with them twice.  Maybe it was nothing to do with gender.  Perhaps they just didn’t like me… Anyway, in a hotel with no restaurant and no room service it was rude.

I spent several years as one of the weekly commuters staying Monday – Thursday in a hotel somewhere in the UK.  We’d be working as part of teams with clients so there were a number of women, but the consultancy teams were very male dominated.  Of the women who did work on these teams, none, bar one, had children.  All the men were fathers.  They were quite happy to spend 4 nights away from their families every week, for years.  The one mother who did this was questioned CONSTANTLY about her motives, her suitability as a parent, her sense of responsibility etc.  At the time I didn’t have children.  I do now and can’t imagine choosing that lifestyle – but that’s a choice I make as a parent not as a mother.  Of course this isn’t an issue that applies only to the IT industry – female explorers are routinely asked how they can go on dangerous expeditions and risk leaving their children motherless.

There are a lot of studies out about the gender imbalance and I intend to look into this in more detail over the next few months.

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One thought on “Why don’t girls choose Computing?

  1. Pingback: Engendered Imbalance | Academic Computing

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