09/06/2014 11:22 BST | Updated 06/08/2014 06:59 BST

To Get More Women in IT, Computer Science Must Be as Common as ABCs

There clearly remains a perception problem around the suitability and attractiveness of IT as a career path for women. In the EU, where women occupy just 11 percent of IT leadership roles, the situation is particularly dire.

There clearly remains a perception problem around the suitability and attractiveness of IT as a career path for women. In the EU, where women occupy just 11 percent of IT leadership roles, the situation is particularly dire.

While figures are slightly more promising in the Americas and Asia, it is widely believed that women's views of IT continue to keep many of them from exploring careers in the field. For educators today, changing this perception has the potential to go a long way toward boosting the number of women in technology jobs.

Addressing the perception problem

The current skills gap in the industry creates a variety of IT job possibilities for both genders. Companies across the world are crying out for people to fill vacancies in highly lucrative fields such as data science, cloud architecture, app development, and programming.

One perception issue that must be addressed is that women do not have successful careers in computing. Governments and IT organisations have already begun to draw increased attention to the depth and breadth of IT career opportunities available to qualified women. Women with technology backgrounds and successful careers such as Ruchi Sanghvi, Vice President of Operations at Dropbox, and Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, are increasingly visible, and stand as living proof that the IT industry has made significant progress since the days when Dame Stephanie Shirley - founder of software company F.I Group (now Xansa) - had to pretend her name was Steve to get a job.

Another perception that needs adjusting is the belief that computer science skills lead only to a job writing code for hours on end in solitude. The career progression of Clara Shih is a great example of how a background in IT can lead to all kinds of exciting opportunities. In addition to her role as founder and CEO of Hearsay Social, Ms. Shih is also a published author, and at just 31 years of age, she was appointed to the board of Starbucks, taking over after the departure of another successful female in the technology space: Sheryl Sandberg, the current COO of Facebook.

Planting the seed early on

However, to succeed in a technology job, a person must develop sound technology knowledge and skills along with an interest in an IT career. At Oracle Academy, we have found that girls at the K-12 stage of education (i.e., primary and secondary school) respond as positively as boys to IT course work, especially when it is presented in a creative way, aligned to content that tends to interest girls.

Oracle Academy's Java curriculum incorporates Alice, a programming interface designed at Carnegie Mellon University, to encourage young people with little or no programming experience to learn basic Java coding skills through engaging animations. This approach draws on young people's enthusiasm for animation and visual storytelling, and in our experience resonates particularly well with girls.

Other initiatives such as e-skills UK's Computing Club for Girls, which help girls develop their IT skills through challenges themed around their interests, will help to address the skills gap in the medium term. However, for long term success and for meaningful change to take effect, schools in EMEA must revise their computing curriculum. If schools can successfully integrate IT skills with a focus on programming into students' course work from a young age, giving both boys and girls exposure and skills development through standard core curriculum, it is not hard to imagine the IT gender imbalance becoming significantly smaller within a generation.

Computer Science Literacy for All: A Starting Point

And this is the crux of the matter: the first step in overcoming the IT skills gap is to make computer science part of the core skills all students master as part of their broader coursework. We must aim to make computer science gender-neutral from an early age, before students develop any preconceptions about what constitutes male and female subjects. However, we can't ignore the existing bias either. To help drive female student interest in IT, both industry and academia must highlight female role models, actively encourage mentorships for girls, provide additional support to help girls excel in computer science during the teen years when gender roles and peer pressure have a significant influence on academic choices, and look for ways to make computer science courses relevant and interesting to both boys and girls of all ages.

In the near future, almost all jobs will involve an IT component; indeed, the European Commission has estimated that by as early as 2015, 90 per cent of jobs will require IT skills. Women make up half the population, and half the workforce. It is imperative that all students, including and especially girls, develop computer science literacy and computing skills as part of their educational pathway, starting now.