IT not attractive to teenage girls

There are many theories about why more women are not enrolling in IT courses in Canada, but the simplest answer could be they just don’t want to.

Jane Fritz, dean of the faculty of computer science at the University of New Brunswick, said both the school and the province have put together special initiatives to encourage females to get involved in IT.

“We’ve had province-wide essay contests. We’ve had a book cover that you put on textbooks to advertise IT careers that went out to all high schools and junior highs across the province,” Fritz explained. “The feedback is that that’s all fine, but [IT] isn’t what they want to do.”

She noted the rate of female enrolment in computer science at the university has hovered between 18 and 20 per cent for eight years, which she said is actually very good. Fritz stated the school’s continued initiatives have helped maintain enrolment.

Fritz said the reasons people give for the low involvement of women in IT courses are anecdotal. “Effectively a love of a computer game seems to be what attracts people to computers in school and often that’s guys, though not all guys,” she said.

Many companies are now working on games for girls, according to Fritz, but she would rather scrap that image altogether.

“I think this computer game image is a shame. Many people that are turned off by it would probably really enjoy computer science,” she said.

There is another image that is hard for computer science to overcome.

“It seems the image of a computer scientist has a very specific sense, as far as teenagers are concerned, which is not attractive to females,” Fritz said.

Leslie Oliver, a computer science professor at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, agreed teenage girls aren’t attracted by the image of computer geeks.

“The geeky guy image – maybe a girl looks at that and says, ‘That’s not what I want to do.’ We need to make sure we are not emphasizing an old stereotype,” he said.

Oliver estimated that somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of Acadia’s computer science students are women.

He noted there are not enough publicized female role models in the IT field. “Perhaps the way the history of the field has been recorded, it has given less than due credit to some of the women who were founders in the field,” Oliver said.

He also questioned the message being sent to high school females when they are making post-secondary choices, “but presumably there is something they are perceiving that says computer science is not the way to go.”

Fritz countered that perhaps the problem is not at school.

“I think women need to be encouraged to mathematics and science, but I’m not sure if discouragement comes from school or the home. There are plenty of parents telling their daughters not to go the science route,” she said.

Oliver suggested that women may just be more passive users of technology.

“People looked at factors like ‘Did men and women have computers in their homes?’ That was about 50/50, but then came the question, ‘Have you ever bought software for the computer?’ I think 70 or 75 per cent of the boys said yes, while for the girls it was about 23 per cent,” he explained.

Renee Elio, the associate chair for computer science at the University of Alberta, said nobody can definitively explain the issue.

“If I felt we had a good sense of what was going on, I think I could address it. When I looked at this a few years ago, I was troubled that the numbers were going up in engineering and mathematics, but were declining in our department,” she said.

Elio noted that only 10 per cent of current computer science students at the school are women. She added she is not optimistic that this will improve anytime soon. “I don’t see a change for the better.”

Fritz agreed, stressing that the ins and outs of computer science may just not be something girls are interested in. “That could be the nature of it and we can’t re-engineer all that very quickly.”

But Valerie Murphy, regional marketing manager for Ontario at the Information Technology Institute in Toronto, is very optimistic about the face of the future for females in IT. “It’s just like other industries. At one time advertising and marketing were male domains. Now there are so many women in those fields,” Murphy said. “I think that as time goes on more women will come into IT.”

About one third of ITI’s students are female, and Murphy said that for the moment that has plateaued. “I’m not really certain why it isn’t going up right now,” she said. “Maybe it’s because a lot of women don’t traditionally enter sciences, maths or engineering. Maybe women lump IT in with engineering and math, and in the IT sector what you really need is good reasoning and logic skills.”

Jennifer Evans, Canadian director at DigitalEve, a national networking and skills group for female IT professionals, was not surprised that enrolment in speciality schools was higher than in computer science at universities.

“I have seen a study that said it isn’t necessarily IT courses, but computer programming degrees, where female enrolments have significantly decreased,” she explained. “At most professional schools enrolment is up a tonne, but actual enrolment in computer engineering programs by women has gone way down.”

She added the most attractive part of IT for women may be the possibilities for communications, rather than the “nitty gritty take it apart and see how the motherboard works sort of thing.”

Evans also noted many women who do go into the hands-on side of IT are, like their male counterparts, self-taught. She recommended that schools and governments work with women’s organizations to try and spread a positive IT image.

Fritz noted there are many active groups for women involved in computer science and IT. “If you go on the Web, there are all kinds of Web sites for how to encourage women to go into IT,” she said. “And it’s not making a big difference.”