How to switch on the IT girls

Female academics aim to boost women’s interest in computer science

August 8, 2013

Keyboard kings: critics say that popular TV programmes such as The Big Bang Theory propagate the stereotype that computer science is solely a pursuit of male geeks

The stereotype of the male computer geek is a staple of modern television and film – prime examples include the British sitcom The IT Crowd and the US TV hit The Big Bang Theory. But there are growing fears that such portrayals are deterring girls from studying computer science.

“You see it in the media so much that computer programmers are nerdy boys,” says Dame Wendy Hall, one of the world’s leading computer science experts. She points to the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, as another example, with Ben Whishaw’s Q depicted as the “geek with the glasses”.

Research published last month in the US journal Sex Roles argues that computer science still has a “nerdy” image problem. The study led by Sapna Cheryan, assistant professor in psychology at the University of Washington, found that women are more likely to be affected by the image of computer scientists presented in the media than men.

Cheryan and her team conclude that drawing more attention to “counter stereotypical” figures such as Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo!, could increase female interest in the subject.

Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton and creator of a forerunner to the World Wide Web, says that despite considerable efforts there has been little change. “We still have this major problem of the culture we have that makes being a computer programmer something that girls don’t want to do.

“It’s those crucial early teenage years when we switch girls off…Sometimes I do despair and I do think we’ll never change it.”

However, despite the lack of progress thus far, Hall emphasises that it is vital that women get involved. “Look at all the computing that is used in…health and education…and social care – all things that women want to do and enjoy.”

She also thinks that if the subject were made more attractive to women, it would become more attractive to men, too. “The most important thing is that it can’t be treated as a women’s issue.”

Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that women made up only 17.4 per cent of computer science graduates in 2012. At the University of Cambridge, the number of young women wanting to study the subject was even lower: just 12.2 per cent of applicants in 2011-12. Only two of 70 undergraduates accepted for its computer science courses who applied in 2010-11 were female.

Ann Copestake, professor of computational linguistics and deputy head of the computer laboratory at Cambridge, says: “The figures for applications this year [2012-13] are not greatly improved…There is a lot of speculation about the causes and hardly any evidence.

“The only way radical change will be achieved is through changing attitudes to computer science in schools, including primary schools. There is a substantial amount of work going into reforming the computer science curriculum in schools and developing resources to support teaching, and people from the computer laboratory are very much involved in this.”

In February, Michael Gove, the education secretary, announced plans to scrap the existing information and computer technology curriculum in favour of a more up-to-date computing course. The draft programme suggests that pupils will be taught about algorithms from the age of five and how to “design and write programs that accomplish specific goals” between the ages of seven and 11.

“There’s a hope that this will encourage more girls to become interested, but we wouldn’t expect to see the effects for a number of years,” Copestake says. “There’s a huge challenge in getting enough qualified teachers and, of course, getting qualified female teachers will be even more difficult.”

Dot-com dividends?

Across the Atlantic, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has been more successful in attracting female students to its School of Computer Science: they will make up 35 per cent of its 2013-14 intake.

Carol Frieze, the director of Women@SCS – an initiative that aims to boost the department’s female student numbers – agrees that the problem starts early, as computer science “is not generally available to kids in school so they have no idea what the subject is and little information about careers. That’s a really big issue…for both boys and girls.”

The turning point at Carnegie Mellon came in 1999, when there was a sudden surge in the number of women taking the subject: female students made up nearly 40 per cent of the cohort. Frieze believes that the dot-com boom drove up interest, with a change in admissions requirements (applicants no longer needed to have experience in programming) being another factor.

An outreach programme for high school teachers also seemed to have a significant impact on the increase in female interest.

Today, Women@SCS continues to build links with teachers, parents and children through workshops such as its TechNights scheme.

But even if such initiatives were successfully replicated in the UK, there is the problem of female computer science graduates being less likely to enter the industry.

A 2012 study by Ruth Woodfield, professor of sociology at the University of SussexGender and Employability Patterns Amongst UK ICT Graduates: How Leaky Is the Pipeline? – found that 22 per cent of female graduates took up careers in IT compared with 39 per cent of male graduates. According to the British Computer Society (BCS), it is estimated that only 14 per cent of software professionals and 21 per cent of computer analysts are women.

‘Leaky pipeline’

In June, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee launched an inquiry into women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers, with a particular focus on the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, whereby fewer and fewer women are taking up such subjects at each stage of academic progression.

For Gillian Arnold, chair of BCS Women, who worked for IBM before setting up her own company, Tectre, in 2009, addressing this issue is vital, not just for representation in academia but also for the economy.

She says the lack of women entering the IT profession is “a very real threat for the industry and UK plc”.

“Women are consumers and users of technology, but they are not taking the opportunities to be involved in the development of new technologies or the profession,” she says.

“The problem appears to be…the lack of positive role models for girls as they make their career decisions and as women look to return to work…As a profession we also need to recognise the impact that unconscious bias has.”

For Arnold, addressing the “image problem” surrounding computer science is crucial. In order to do this, she says, “we need more positive media coverage, which highlights the career opportunities available in technology and the positive aspects of working in this profession – the profession of the future”.

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