Two conferences consider how far women are taking leading roles in education and at work. Few women enter the computer industry or study computer science, because they think it offers poor job prospects, new research has found.
It is often argued that women face particular barriers in computing: they have been steered into stereotyped subject choices at school which prevents them gaining the necessary entrance qualifications; they are intimidated by the discipline's macho bias and lack of female role models; and they lack confidence in dealing with computers.
Gerda Siann, NCR professor of gender relations at Dundee University, takes a different view. Women are well able to overcome any obstacles, she argues. But they reject computer science because they believe it offers poor opportunities and not enough human contact or social responsibility.
Professor Siann, who will be guest speaker at the Women into Computing conference at De Montfort University in Milton Keynes in July, has found that women are significantly under-represented in computer science as a single subject or linked to science and technology.
But the proportion of women on computer science courses combined with business and administrative studies is 32 per cent. This rises to 40 per cent for computer science with social, economic and political studies, while women outnumber men in courses linking computer science and languages.
High-fliers of both sexes may avoid computer science because of dwindling job opportunities, poor pay and lack of prestige, Professor Siann says. Her research has shown that schoolgirls do well in the necessary sciences for subjects such as medicine and veterinary science, and she argues that women have overcome formidable opposition to enter such male dominated "elite" professions.
In a survey of Dundee science and engineering undergraduates, 89 per cent of women said the dearth of female lecturers made no difference to them, and 78 per cent said the gender balance of staff did not matter at all. A study of Scots pupils has shown that boys make far more use of computers than girls, often to play games. But the girls did not lack confidence in using computers, tending rather to use them for practical ends such as word processing.
Professor Siann concludes from her studies that women are rejecting computer science for positive rather than negative reasons, and are happy to study it when it is linked to subjects which seem to have a more human face.