3 ways to get more women into IT education

Preconceived notions about what men and women are skilled at influence young people's choice of education, according to both Danish and international research. Valeria Borsotti, anthropologist and Diversity Consultant at ITU, delved into the reasons behind Danish women's choice or rejection of a technical IT education.

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For years, women have been highly underrepresented in technical IT education programmes not only in Denmark, but across the Western world. But what are the reasons behind this?

In a research project, anthropologist and Diversity Consultant at ITU Valeria Borsotti scrutinized young people's perceptions of computer science by conducting interviews and questionnaires among Danish high school students and students in ITU’s Software Development programme. Her resulting research article received an ACM SIGSOFT Distinguished Paper Award at the ICSE Conference in Gothenburg in May 2018.

Here, Valeria Borsotti shares three of the study’s most important insights about why fewer women take an IT education and her advice on how to change this state of affairs. Read the full research article here. 

1) The stereotype of the male nerd

"When you ask people to imagine a computer scientist, both men and women tend to picture a male nerd with poor social skills. This is a cliché with strong negative connotations. When I asked the young people in my survey why they thought so few women chose IT subjects, almost all of them pointed to this stereotypical image.

At the same time, a large number of high school students in my study thought that computer science is for ‘nerds' and that the subject requires no interaction with other people. As one female high school student put it, 'I don’t want to be chained to a screen all day'."

What we can do:
"Educational institutions should focus on communicating IT education in a way that actively counteracts stereotypes.

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Educational institutions should focus on communicating IT education in a way that actively counteracts stereotypes.

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We should carefully avoid tokenism – symbolic gestures such as having a woman present in pictures – and highlight examples of both female and male role models in the industry that demonstrate which jobs you can get with a technical education and how you can use software development to make a positive difference in the world.

In teaching, it is important that instructors use examples that are relevant to all students, and show that programming is used in all kinds of industries - not only in male-dominated fields."

2) Gender-biased expectations

"In Denmark as in other Western countries, there is a widespread notion that men are more apt at technical IT subjects, despite the fact that women have played a central role in the history of computer science. This preconception affects young people as well as their parents and teachers. For instance, I spoke with a high school student who said that 'programming is for boys', and some female ITU students told me that their families had been surprised by their choice of education.

A major international study with around 350,000 respondents showed that stereotypes about which gender is suited for certain science disciplines are very powerful if there is a large predominance of men in the field. This also applies in countries with high equality between the genders. So the predominance of men in computer science reinforces the notion that men are better suited for a career in this field.

The notion that women by nature are less suited for and less interested in tech and logical thinking is a cultural phenomenon that is widespread throughout the Western world. In other cultures, women actually outnumber men in computer science programmes. In Dubai, about 50% of computer science students are women, in Qatar it is 70% and in Malaysia 60%."

What we can do:
"It is necessary to have role models in the IT subjects that women can identify with – also among teachers and faculty.

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In the marketing of computer science programs, role models can help demystify what you can do with an IT education.

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In the marketing of computer science programs, role models can help demystify what you can do with an IT education. Female role models are of course important, but male role models also work – as long as they deviate from the stereotype of the anti-social nerd. For instance, many of the female software students I spoke with had been introduced to coding by their father, brother or partner."

3) Less familiarity with coding

"Research from Carnegie Mellon University shows that women in the computer science programme on average have far less previous coding experience than the male students when they enter the programme.

My survey among ITU students showed that this is also the case in Denmark. One of the female ITU students, for example, told me that some of her fellow students came with up to 10 years of programming experience, while she had learned programming from a two-hour online tutorial."

What we can do:
"It is a good idea to organize activities that introduce young women to software development and programming, which ITU for instance does through IT camps and coding cafés for female high school students.

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Since women typically arrive with less coding experience than male students, it is important for schools to organize initiatives that make students without coding experience feel welcome and where they can find help and support.

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Since women typically arrive with less coding experience than male students, it is also important for schools to organize initiatives that make students without coding experience feel welcome and where they can find help and support. This signals that coding is for everyone.

In 2016, ITU introduced a voluntary introductory programming course before first semester and additional study help throughout the first semester. This was very well received by the students – in the survey, the students said that these initiatives had increased their confidence. This also applied to male students without programming experience. Basically, it's about ensuring that the programme is attractive and accessible to all the talents out there - women and men alike."

Further information

Vibeke Arildsen, Press Officer, phone 2555 0447, email viar@itu.dk