Where have all the women gone?


espite the perception of growing equality within IT, the number of women enrolled in North American post-secondary computer science courses is actually decreasing every year, according to an informal study.

“The trends are, I think, very discouraging,” said Joanne Moore, a technical resources program manager at IBM Toronto Lab. Moore presented her findings at a Women in Technology talk during the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) International Collegiate Programming Contest, held in Honolulu in March.

In 1984, 37 per cent of North American students enrolled in post secondary computer science and related courses were women. What Moore said she found surprising was that those numbers have declined yearly since then, and are expected to be at only 16 per cent by 2005. These numbers don’t even include the percentage of women who drop out of computer courses after the first year – also a very high percentage. “I think that should be a concern for all of us,” she said.

“The indication is that the first computer programmers were actually women, interestingly enough,” with the innovation of compiling technologies such as Cobol, Moore said. However, after a jump in the number of women in this field in the early ’80s, there’s been a downward trend ever since. This is alarming, she said, especially in light of studies that have shown that by 2006, women will make up 50 per cent of the North American workforce.

Ironically, other findings indicate that by the end of this year, women will outnumber men on the Internet by a 60-40 ratio, the number of new users who are women are growing exponentially, women spend an average of nine hours a week online, 62 per cent have Internet access and many are starting their own companies, Moore said. “So one of the questions that I think is on many of our minds is ‘where are all the women?'”

Though it’s nothing new, misconceptions about programming are probably still contributing to the downtrend in women’s interest, she said. These include the ongoing perception that developers spend hours in front of a terminal every day, with little or no interaction with others. Also, the social pressures of not being thought of as a “geek” still exist, and are much more prevalent for women. And these social pressures start early in life, she said.

“If you look at the video games that are out there today – a lot of boys tend to play more video games than girls. It’s all about the violence that’s associated with those games vs. what girls may be interested in,” Moore said. “I don’t think there are as many computer programs, games and things like that for girls.”

Even in this day and age, educators still try to talk girls out of computer-related studies, Moore said. “I’ve spoken to guidance counsellors in high schools, and some of them are still discouraging women from entering a technical career path. And I think a lot of the teachers aren’t necessarily computer literate themselves – they themselves shy away from the technology.”

Amber Simpson, a Queens University computer science graduate student, agrees with that assessment.

“There’s not an understanding in high schools of what computer science is,” the Kingston, Ont.-based student said. “People think we sit around and write macros for Word or something.” And for a female student, it is even more difficult, she said.

“You’re surrounded with all these guys, and all they want to talk about is RAM and how many gigabytes they have. There’s all this techie talk and [girls] get scared that they won’t be able to keep up – and they drop out,” Simpson said.

Moore said there are things that can be done to increase the number of women in IT. These include encouraging the technical community to come out with more gender-neutral software for kids, as well as more girl-specific software and games; providing better role models for women in technology; encouraging mentoring relationships between students and women who have technical careers; and stimulating an interest in math and science when girls are still very young.

“We have to get to them early,” Moore said.