By Fiona Pearse author of The I.T. Girl
Sometimes, caught at the coffee dock, a man will lower his voice and ask me: Why do YOU think there are so few women in IT?
It's a good question. The numbers of women in medicine and the sciences increase steadily with women now making up more than 50% of medical students. But in my 15 years of working in IT, I am still usually the only woman on the team.
It's possible the reason for this is simple: women are just not interested in programming. But is the ratio of men to women in the field an accurate reflection of that disparity in interest? Or are there other factors at play that mean women who might love the job never consider it?
I see two factors that could be in the way. The predominant one being the tech culture. Gaming, comics, gadgets and the massive tech industry have always quite naturally attracted boys. IT and specifically software development is enveloped in this boy's world and from an early age girls probably think that a career in IT means having to enter their club.
But even if the industry could reach women without their feeling pressure to be indoctrinated, there's another persistent factor. In 2005 American economist Lawrence Summers gave a speech at a conference on science and diversity, and suggested that a difference in "availability of aptitude" between men and women could contribute to why women have not risen in scientific ranks. On popular quiz show Q.I., Stephen Fry once commented that women were better at multitasking due to having a wider corpus callossum, where as men were better at maths. Though Science has begun to recognise a relationship between brain structures and abilities, understanding brain development in relation to social conditioning, confidence and identity is another matter. But in a culture that insists on streamlining gender, even when women are exposed to programming, how easy is it to be put off when a program refuses to work? Maybe I should try something with multitasking instead.
As technology becomes more ubiquitous, women have become the new market. My friend's 10 year old never takes her head out of a pony game. This will certainly lead to more women taking an interest in writing software. But I think the solution also starts in school. A programming class could teach kids how to write their own phone apps, for example. It would also encourage analytical thinking and employ mathematics.
We programmers ask this question because the absence of women in the industry becomes more and more marked. But it's not just the absence of women; IT is suffering from a lack of diversity in general. Practices are not challenged the way they should be, with the workforce made up of the same kind of people. We must reach out to those who do not fit the stereotype if we are to evolve.
Fiona Pearse is author of The I.T. Girl, published by Endeavour Press.