Tech & Work

Time for IT jobs to be set aside for women

With women accounting for only a fraction of people studying computer science, there have been calls for gender-related quotas for IT roles.

With new figures showing little change in the number of women studying computer science, one industry expert is saying it's time for radical new measures to address the problem.

Gillian Arnold, head of the women's section of UK professional computing body BCS, said from her personal point of view firms should be obliged to employ women in a proportion of IT-related roles.

Her comments follow figures showing only 3,125 women chose to study computer science-related subjects in the UK this academic year, compared with 2,925 the year before, according to university admissions organisation UCAS.

More than six times as many men chose to study computer science, with 20,460 undergraduates this year. The numbers of male computer science university students also grew faster, up from 18,785 the year before. The gender gap is similar in the US, with only 20 percent of computer science degrees earned by women.

Number of computer sciences undergraduates in the UK (Source: UCAS)

Overall, however, women outnumbered men on two-thirds of degree courses, with 57,800 more women gaining higher education places through UCAS than men.

Arnold, chairwoman of BCSWomen and founder of an IT services company, said progress in addressing the shortfall has been slow, stressing initiatives to get women interested in technical roles had been taking place for decades.

"Collectively, all the woman's groups I'm aware of have been doing this work since the mid-1990s, certainly. Think about the collective hours of effort that have gone into trying to encourage women to join these professions. That's an enormous amount. We haven't issued any quotas but maybe it's time," she said, stressing this was her personal opinion rather than that of BCSWomen.

"Where have we got role models who say, 'It's cool to be a technical woman?'. There are so very few of them. If we could fix that, I think that would be a huge change. Personally, I would like to see quotas but I recognise not everybody feels that way."

Once a critical mass of women work in IT-related fields, the gap between the sexes could close naturally, she said.

"There's an academic in the states, Virginia Valian, who said once you've got about 30 percent [of women in a type of role], it becomes a self-sustaining figure. You see the women then bringing other women into the workplace, and it becomes a more attractive field to work in," she said.

Schemes such as e-skills UK Computer Clubs for Girls (CC4G) also have an important role to play, she said, in showing girls a side to IT beyond negative stereotypes.

"The TV image of someone in IT is The IT Crowd and that's not brilliant is it? The other image is some geeky bloke in the middle of the night with a half-eaten pizza, who doesn't appear to have washed in a month, so what girl aspires to be that?" she said.

Dr Sue Black, who served as a role model in the BCS women in IT campaign, agreed there is a need for more figures to inspire girls to join the IT industry, but believes progress is being made.

"It's a shame that the numbers of people studying computer science are not going up dramatically and especially that the number of women is so low," she said.

"On the plus side, the number of women is higher than it has been since 2007, so that shows a trend upwards which is good news.

"Everyone is gradually waking up to the fact that we need diversity at all levels of the tech industry if we want to compete in what is now a global marketplace."

Despite the sluggish growth, she believes people are less resistant to schemes trying to encourage more women to work in IT than they once were.

"The attitude towards diversity has changed dramatically in the past few years. When I set up BCSWomen in 2001, an online network for women in tech, many people, men and women, complained to me that it was ridiculous and sexist having a group to support and encourage women in tech [asking], 'What about the men?'.

"Thankfully, attitudes are changing and there are lots of necessary and valuable initiatives now, not just BCSWomen, encouraging and supporting women and girls in tech.

"The change in attitude and all these initiatives working together will make a difference, but Rome wasn't built in a day. These things take time."

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