Women in computing – the problem, why we should be bothered and what we should be doing about it

IMG_1097Dr Hannah Dee is a lecturer in computer science at Aberystwyth University, who does research into computer vision and teaches web programming. She’s also on the national committee for BCSWomen (British Computer Society) and runs the BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium, the UK’s main event for women undergraduates. She’s a “Science Champion” on the Get On With Science project and is involved in programming workshops for kids and their parents across the UK. On the eve of the most recent BCSWomen Lovelace Colloquium in Edinburgh, Hannah delivered a lecture titled “Where are the Girls?” In this article, she shares her views on how to attract more girls into computing.


The early years of computing were full of women. It’s estimated that over 80% of the staff at Bletchley Park during the war were women, operating some of the world’s first computational machines and contributing to the foundations of British computing. Early computing courses attracted fairly equal numbers of men and women students. Indeed, the first meaning of the word ‘computer’ was to refer to someone – usually a woman – performing routine sums. Sometime around the 1970s, this changed. Computing became a discipline and indeed a profession with a gender problem. Now, women number about 15% of the technical workforce and there is a clear ‘Leaky Pipeline’ with women choosing to drop out at each stage of educational progression.

Why this is happening is hard to determine: it happens in most western countries (but less so in other parts of the world). Maybe women just aren’t interested in computers. Or maybe there’s something that’s putting women off – for example, maybe there’s something about school computing that makes women think computing is not for them. Or maybe there’s a broader image problem.

When you ask children to draw a picture of a computer scientist, they usually draw a guy, wearing glasses, probably with spots, hunched over a keyboard. If you do an image search for  “computer scientist”, the first page is full of pictures of stereotypical nerds – the ones for “programmer” are just the same. Whatever we want to say about the discipline and the profession, one thing is clear, and that’s that computing has an image problem.

What’s happening in schools?

There’s been a crisis in school computing which came to a head last year with the Royal Society calling for a major reform of the technical curriculum in their publication “Shut down or restart?” The problem was that the nation’s schoolkids simply don’t know what computer science is – in schools, students study ICT, which involves spreadsheets, word processing, maybe some databases or some web design. Computer science – systems, programming, networks, algorithms – doesn’t get a mention. In universities we see this at interview every year, and in computing departments across the UK there are freshers wondering what they’ve let themselves in for. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to computing (most law students, for example, haven’t studied law before they get to university). But coupled with our image problem it has major implications, particularly in terms of gender. Computing in the broadest sense has been falling across the board though, not just with women.  At university the gender imbalance continues. Where I work, in Computer Science at Aberystwyth, we’re pretty much average in terms of student gender ratio – hovering between 10 and 15 percent. So we’ve got a problem: computing in schools is not actually computing, and the general image problem of the subject as a solo pursuit dominated by guys means that students looking for other careers – creative, social careers – don’t think of applying.

Computing can be fun

I realise that some of my students might disagree … but I firmly believe that computing can be an incredibly rewarding subject. When you’re programming, you’re quite literally building things out of ideas, and the sense of achievement you can get from getting a tricky piece of code to work is great. When I’m programming, those “Aha!” moments are actually quite common. But computing isn’t just programming: there’s system design, algorithms, user experience design (making interfaces), software testing, user testing, technical training, technical writing, networking, user support and helpdesk roles, and lots of other careers. And that’s before you consider management and analyst roles, further up the business tree.  Only a handful of these potential careers have the opportunity to sit in a cubicle on your own writing code: the vast majority are team-based careers, requiring teamwork, creativity and (dare I say it) social skills.

Skills gaps, job markets, and the power of diverse teams

One of the turning points of the last decade has been a recognition from business that diversity is something to be valued. McKinsey have released a series of reports under the “Women Matter” banner which show – from a fairly hard-nosed, business perspective – that diverse teams perform better within the business world. As an example, when you compare companies in the top quartile for executive gender diversity against companies with no women on their executive board, those with diverse boards have 41% better return on equity, and 56% better earnings before interest and tax. It’s important to note that these teams aren’t doing better because women are more talented at business; they’re performing better because diverse teams behave differently. Monocultures tend to be self-reinforcing: if all your decisions are taken by one sector of the population, then the decision making and management style is going to be similar. What diverse boards provide is a range of different backgrounds and management styles, all engaging in the business process, and when this happens, McKinsey show that the resultant business process is more effective.

There are other arguments for diversity in the workplace: in professions with heavy gender imbalances, the minority gender generally has a more difficult time. Male nurses take more sick days, female accountants are more likely to register on the anxiety and depression scales. There’s a term – sex role spillover – for the way in which unrelated aspects of gender roles seep into a profession when that profession has a major gender imbalance. There’s no need for computing system administrators to be interested in beer and trains: having unrelated but common interests doesn’t make you a better sysadmin (although it may make it easier to chat with colleagues).

There’s also a skills shortage in certain IT roles: Neelie Kroes, the EU commissioner for the digital agenda (and EU vice president) has recently proposed grand coalitions to address technical skills gaps. Skills gaps aren’t uniform across the entire ICT/Computing field, but exist in most sub-domains; for example, the UK’s National Audit Office has recently said that unless recruitment to computing courses increases dramatically we face a 20 year wait for enough skilled professionals in the cyber security domain. So: diverse teams perform better, and there are lots of jobs (in some parts of the profession, at least). What are we doing to try and encourage girls to enter computing? Could we do more? Can you help?

Girl geeks and coder chicks

Computing now pervades our lives. Most of us have computers in our pockets that are far more powerful than the computers used on the space shuttle; there’s more processing power in some washing machines than was available to the computing pioneers of the sixties. Social networking has taken off to such an extent that now, the gender ratio of computer users, gamers, and purchasers is pretty much equal: indeed the largest growing demographic in computer games is my own (35-55 year old women). So women are active consumers of technology, we’re just not getting involved as creators.

Organisations and events targeted at women exist to try and break this pattern. These can be linked to professional societies, like BCSWomen (the British Computer Society’s group for women in technology). Or they can be grassroots organisations, like Girl Geek Dinners, who put on talks and dinners around the world for women. There are also organisations aimed at particular areas within computing, like MzTek who target women interested in computing and art, or Computing at School #include who work to make computing in schools more inclusive. Dr Reena Pau, a member of CAS #include, says “we want to offer opportunities for as many students as possible to be able to experience Computing – whilst of course realising it will not be for everyone!” These organisations provide a space for women to meet and network, but they also provide support and mentoring opportunities.

Within many universities there are groups to support women – where I work in Aberystwyth there’s a group called Aber Comp Sci Ladies, started by Phoebe Murphy who says she started it “to try and help the women in the department feel a bit less isolated and to help us support each other” (Phoebe’s an undergraduate). School computing is being rejuvenated, by organisations like Computing At School (CAS) and lot of the big companies are coming on board to help out (Microsoft, Google and IBM have all been sponsors of some of the initiatives I’ve mentioned). Right now, one of the really big issues is training enough teachers to deliver the new curriculum. For information on how CAS is supporting Scottish schools see http://academy.bcs.org/content/computing-scottish-schools.

What can you do to help out?

If you have a daughter or a niece (or a son or a nephew) think about encouraging them in creative computing – things like the programming language Scratch, available at http://scratch.mit.edu, introduce programming concepts to children from the age of about 7 up.

I’ve written a family programming day for Android phones, where we’ve had 6-year old girls making their first app (just a farmyard noises app, but everyone has to start somewhere!) If you’re interested in that it’s free online at http://www.hannahdee.eu/appinventor – you could get hold of the materials and give it a go yourselves. In June 2015 we’re running this across the UK and going for a world record! Find out more at http://www.bcs.org/content/ConWebDoc/54172.

If you’re technical, why not think about helping out in schools? Computing ++ links programmers with schools across the UK – check it out at http://www.computingplusplus.org/.

If you’re interested in finding out more, the book “Little Miss Geek” by Belinda Parmar is a great introduction to this general area, and “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine is a more academic (but still readable) take on gender differences across the board.

In the words of the late Karen Spärck Jones “Computing’s too important to be left to men”.

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