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Girls don’t like computers

15 Abr, 2016 - - @sabelaraga

During the last year we have seen that the media has started to pay attention to a global phenomenon that is not new at all: the number of women in ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) is extremely low. Large tech companies like Google, Facebook or Microsoft have already realised that they need to encourage the other half of the population because the demand of qualified workers in the sector is going to overcome the offer in the near future (only in Europe, the estimation is that in 2015 there will be an unfilled demand of 900.000 workers in ICT). This has led them to promote some global initiatives to attract women to this field, like the Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship, the involvement of prominent figures from the companies in the Grace Hopper Celebration, or the promotion of associations of women in tech (Women Tech Makers, Google Anita Borg Scholarship Alumni, etc).

This low presence of women has been associated to other engineering careers and architecture. However, in ICT the imbalance is even higher. As an example, in the University of A Coruña (Spain), the number of women that enroll in the Degree in Computer Engineering is decreasing towards the 10%, whereas in other engineering degrees their presence is increasing (the average was around 30% in 2013). Fun fact: when the degree was called “Diplomatura/Licenciatura in Computer Science” (equivalent to Bachelor/Master and removing the “Engineering” word), the ratio of women was above 30%. This ratio decreased to 20% when the name incorporated the “Engineering” word (it was still around the 30% for the Management specialty, almost identical to the Systems specialty, but with a couple of different subjects).

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated situation. A study of the Commission of the European Union (Women active in the ICT sector, 2013) led to the inclusion of the Action 60 in the European Digital Agenda for 2020 to increase the involvement of women in the ICT workforce. This study yields worrying results regarding the presence of women in ICT. As an example, only 29 per 1000 women with a bachelor holds a degree related to ICT (compared to 95 per 1000 men). And it gets even worse: only 4 per 1000 will work in the ICT sector. Moreover, women leave their ICT career in a higher percentage (the 20% of women with ICT-related careers work in the sector, but only 9% of the women older than 45), and they are underrepresented in the management positions and boards. Yes, even more than in other fields: only the 19.2% of ICT workers have a female boss (compared to the 45.2% in other sectors). Furthermore, there are 31.3% of self-employed women in Europe, but only 19.2% of female ICT entrepeneurs. Another fun fact: following the results of this study, if we are able to revert the situation, the European GDP would increase by 9 thousand million euros per year. And the ICT sector will benefit from that because the companies with a higher ratio of female managers are more productive. Moreover, women wages in this field are around 9% higher than in others, they have better working schedules and less unemployment ratio. And if this is not enough, although the non-adjusted Gender Pay Gap is higher than in other sectors (21% versus 16%), the adjusted GPG is close to 0% (versus 5%) because women have a tendency to work in lower-ranked positions.

If ICT is wonderland… what is keeping women and girls away from this world? The same study from the EU highlights three factors. The first one relates to cultural reasons and stereotypes associated to the women role. Women see the field as boring, lonely and useless in terms of contribution to society. The second one, to the internal barriers and psychosocial factors (e.g., risk aversion), that can be partially explained because of lack of confidence and social preconceptions. And, the third one, to the external barriers: this is a completely male-dominated environment, it can pose a problem to balance personal and work life, and there is a absolute lack of female role models.

However, this problem is neither new nor only European. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the NSF supports programs to increase the number of women in ICT (Roli Varma 2010). And in a Canadian work from 2000 that analyses the actions taken during the nineties, the researchers obtain similar results to the European Commission study from 2013: women show a higher degree of computer anxiety since childhood (anxiety when facing the need for solving a computer-related problem) and a very low degree of computer self-efficacy (perception of the own capacities to acquire certain capacities with a computer). Furthermore, they observe the “we can but I can’t” paradox: women believe that women and men have similar computer-related capacities , but they do not see themselves as capable. Fun fact number 3: the mentioned study from 2000 presents as a possible cause that boys report having more access to a PC and videogame platforms than girls. Given that girls that do have access to a PC present a similar degree of interest in videogames than boys, they propose (among other measures) to ease the early access of girls to computers. But the problem persists even though in 2014, according to Eurostat, 81% of the European homes (74% of the Spanish ones) have access to internet, and that, also in 2014, according to the INE, almost 75% of the Spanish homes have a PC. Hence it is clear that there are other factors that influence the distance from computers.

Another interesting result is the one obtained by the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery, one of the most prestigious and oldest international associations in ICT) in a market study from 2009 to change the image of ICT in society. According to previous work, they conclude that high school students do not have a clue about the real job of a software engineer or a computer scientist. Hence, they want to find how to disseminate the real occupation and the real role that ICT professionals play in society. After interviewing around 1400 teenagers aged between 13 and 17, they conclude that boys have a good opinion of Computer Science and Engineering, while girls are far less interested and they would associate it to words like boredom, among others.

Even though the data is quite clear, the feeling that I perceive among students and professors is that this is unique and inherent to the discipline and that there is not much left to do. That the problems that women face (if they do) are not different from any other environment. So… does that mean that the situation is assumed to be common? Fun fact number 4: we run a small poll to know the opinion of the IT people from our surroundings. The goal was to find out if they detect any problematic related to this fact and elaborate some discussion material for a panel in which the topic was the employment in the ICT area. The sample (155 answers) was not controlled and the results have to be interpreted carfeully. It is noticeable that the profile of the participants reflects the usual percentages: 25.8% female, 74.2% male (22.9% vs. 77.1% among the 131 with an IT related degree; and 24.3% vs. 75.7% among the 115 with an IT-related job). But the real fun fact is the answer to “Do you think that women are underrepresented in your field?”. 21 men out of 87 and 4 women out of 28 (18% and 14% respectively), all of them with an IT related job, answered “no”. Is it because they have a perception problem? It is a real fact that women are underrepresented in IT. They themselves estimate that there are less women in their offices and classes. Do they think it is an isolated fact of their workplace? Even though it is obvious that the number of women in IT companies is low (it is often the case when there is only one woman in the team, or only one women in the office that sometimes does management or administrative tasks and not IT work), it seems that we still need to work on making people realize that this is not a normal and balanced situation.

To sum up, we need to take action in order to change this situation. It is not acceptable to assume that the normal situation is 80-20 (or even 90-10). It is worrying that, although this is not a new situation, young people (see as an example this study about the Galician universities in Spain) still believe that boys are better in Maths and technical fields. That the OCDE results confirm that boys perform better in Maths, but pointing out that girls suffer from higher anxiety when confronting these tests. That the identified causes (and proposed measures) are still almost the same after 20 years without improvements in the situation. We need to realize that there is something that we are doing wrong and that we cannot close the discussion with a simple “Girls don’t like computers”.