Comment: What female IT students need to know

Young designer leans forward working at computer screen

Women are turning their backs on a career in IT despite a looming digital skills shortage.

Female students in Australia are deserting technology subjects in droves. In fact, female tertiary enrolments in IT peaked in 2002 and have been backpedalling ever since, now making up fewer than one in five enrolments from the previous rate of one in four. This is despite a 50% climb in female tertiary enrolments over that time.

Certainly, IT seems to be suffering from an image crisis across the board. The proportion of Australian students choosing IT courses over other degrees has dwindled overall from 9% in 2001 to 4% in 2013. If we look at the projected job prospects for technology graduates in our increasingly digital world, this is a surprising trend indeed.

Why is this happening? Part of the problem may be due to other courses such as marketing and business incorporating a growing technology component in their curriculum, diverting potential IT students towards alternate and perhaps less scholastically intimidating career paths.

Another challenge for female students is navigating the skewed graduate employment game once they complete their degree. Researchers from three top US business schools conducted an experiment asking participants to “hire” someone for a mathematics role based on appearance alone. They found both women and men were twice as likely to pick a male candidate over a female one. Although reduced, discrimination persisted even after applicants reported their results on a maths task.

Leaving aside questions of equity and fairness for the women themselves, there is evidence suggesting poor hiring choices and pushing women away from IT based on unconscious bias hurts individual businesses, the industry and the economy as a whole. The Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency predicts a shortage of workers in most IT occupations by 2025.

Once women have made it into the IT workforce, there is also the challenge of keeping them there. According to the Australian Computer Society, women account for less than a third of all IT workers and around 20% of the technical roles. The Society also reports that men earn almost 10% more than their female colleagues, despite women’s graduate starting salaries being similar or even slightly higher. Female employees are finding they are being passed over for promotion and a pattern of subtle undermining and distrust is dampening their enthusiasm for the industry.

Companies such as Pinterest, Facebook and Google are trialling measures including special diversity recruiters, promotions committees, women’s leadership days and cultural awareness programs where employees play word association games to discover how strongly they link programming roles with men rather than women. Time will tell whether these measures are effective.

Although the statistics paint a fairly bleak picture, the news is not all doom and gloom. An international study released in November last year found that in Australia and almost all of the other countries studied, Year 8 girls actually outperformed boys in computer literacy tests.

Programs like the National Computer Science School and Digital Careers program aim to harness this early proficiency and encourage more Australian students, particularly girls, to develop an interest in technology. However, arguably some of these programs are merely attracting students who are already interested in the subject and Australia might do well to follow Britain in making coding classes part of the primary school curriculum.

In an article originally published on The Conversation last year, Associate Professor Karin Verspoor of the University of Melbourne suggests we start early and smash the stereotypes about the subject being boyish, sterile and anti-social and showcasing how creative and innovative it can be in early schooling years. That, combined with highlighting female role models could encourage more girls to embrace IT as a career.

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