ONCE UPON A TIME, women were relatively keen on a career in computing; in fact the world’s first computer, the ‘ENIAC’ was programmed by six female mathematicians way back in 1944.
When I did my Computer Science degree in the late 1960s, about 40% of my class were women in what seems to have been a golden age for gender equality. The proportion of females interested in studying computing has collapsed since then.
Maybe I should have spotted a problem when I heard one of my female classmates complaining about the number of ‘hirsute misogynists’ in our class – a remark which set me off in search of my Chambers dictionary. Being clean shaven I concluded that I had been excused from her attack.
Nevertheless, back then, girls who enjoyed studying maths at school still saw a career in computing as a creative and collaborative one and were relatively keen to study it.
In fact one of the most successful software development companies at that time was FI, founded by Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley which, until sex discrimination legislation made the policy illegal, only employed female software developers.
But its not like that now. Although girls in general are performing very well at university, with females taking up 57.5% of all UK places in 2013 – clearly outstripping their male colleagues - however in computer science the picture remains very weak for girls. An astonishing 87% of students are male and only 13% are female – along with engineering this is by far the most gender imbalanced subject taught in universities today.
According to the BCS (the UK’s professional institution for IT) only 16% of IT specialists in industry these days are female. This is crazy – computing and IT are excellent, fulfilling and highly paid careers for all, and there is absolutely no credible justification for it having largely become a ‘male profession’.
Looking at the trends over the last 50 years, it is clear that the mid 1980s was the point at which girls started to lose interest in studying computing and it can’t be a coincidence that personal computers (PCs) were just coming out at that time – Sinclair launching their affordable ZX81 PC in 1981.
A credible theory, recently expressed in an NPR report for their programme ‘Morning Edition’ is that such PCs were specifically promoted for boys who enthusiastically acquired and started programming them. By the time they reached college, the boys had amassed a great deal of practical knowledge unlike many of their female classmates who were then ‘switched off ‘ by their relative inexperience.
Whatever the reason, the proportion of women studying computing plummeted round about then and has never recovered since.
A study in 2013 for mobile phone operator O2 into the ‘Digital Skills needs of the UK Economy’ forecast that around 745,000 additional employees with digital skills will be required in the next five years to meet the expected demand. Given that only around 22,000 graduate in computer science in the UK each year that leaves a huge gap which has to be filled somehow.
However they also found that 23% of parents believed that digital skills were irrelevant to their children’s future career success, and 38% of parents admitted that they did not know enough about the digital economy to help their children make informed career choices.
Every professional and industrial body in this field has mounted efforts encouraging women into IT; Polly Purvis, who runs IT trade body ScotlandIS, has launched a campaign to get more women involved.
It has never been more needed.