Are girls put off computing by the nerdy image of an anorak-wearing boffin who communes with a terminal and is, above all, male?
The answer, according to John Wilkes, senior lecturer in computing at Anglia Polytechnic University, is no. Young women may be shunning computing courses at university but it is not because they fear being cast in the role of "tekkie".
Like young men, they do not come close enough to the world of computing to be influenced by stereotypes. Neither boys nor girls in the survey of 155 second-year A-level students knew enough about what software engineers and computer scientists did to have detailed ideas about the profession. But when asked for their choice of career, they avoided computing. Only one, a boy, listed computing, as a fall-back if his chosen career of rock musician did not work out.
Dr Wilkes's sample of students, who came from independent boys' and girls' schools as well as the local sixth-form college, displayed something between indifference and mild aversion to computing as a profession. "This attitude does not stem from ignorance of computers or lack of experience in computers," he told a conference on software engineering at the University of Westminster last week.
"Nor does it arise from adverse experiences of the profession itself, because contacts between the group and members of the profession are few and superficial. Therefore it may be ascribed, at least in part, to the effects of cultural and occupational stereotyping offered repeatedly in the mass media."
Dr Wilkes found girls have a more strongly marked aversion to computing than boys, helping to explain why Britain has suffered a decline in the number of women studying information technology related courses and hence going into software engineering. The United Kingdom is falling well behind other countries. Only 23 per cent of UKIT employees are women compared with 39 per cent in France, 45 per cent in the United States and 55 per cent in Singapore.
It is estimated that more than 80 per cent of UK jobs will involve the use of IT by the year 2000.