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We must challenge myths about females in IT (before girls start applying for college)

IT is far more pervasive now than it was 20 years ago, so the decline in female graduates in the area seems counter-intuitive.

Image: Shutterstock/Amble Design

IN 2015, CAREER opportunities in the IT field have never been as good. Yet, the wider population is still not fully represented. There remains a clear gender imbalance in the take up of IT related degrees and jobs.

This trend occurs at a time when IT innovations create boundless opportunities across the globe in all business sectors, eg financial services, pharmaceutical, retail and medical devices. IT by its very nature needs a diverse workforce that reflects society as a whole. As a consequence, the need for a more balanced representation of males and females has been reprioritised by business as they recognise that they cannot afford to under-utilise half of the population if they are to be competitive.

Why are there so few women in IT?

According a recent European report, for every thousand women in the EU with a degree, only 29 hold a degree in information technology, compared to 95 men; and just four of those women will eventually work in the IT sector. In an Irish context, female representation in IT has never been high; yet, career opportunities for IT graduates in Ireland have never been as good. New IT job opportunities are announced on an almost weekly basis. The Irish Government’s Action Plan for Jobs 2014 outlines an ICT Action Plan for 44,500 new jobs for ICT professionals up to 2018.

Furthermore, given the widely reported issues related to recruitment of females to the IT field – such as limited awareness of different career paths, identification of the IT industry as inherently male, and the perception it is anti-social – it is critical that we explore these issues as they impact female choices for third level education and future careers.

Given the almost worldwide dearth of qualified, skilled females for the IT industry, strategies that focus on the issues of female recruitment to third level IT programmes is not only timely, but critical. The disconnect between the positive representation of career opportunities in IT and female uptake in related third level qualifications needs to be identified and resolved.

Given that IT is far more pervasive now than it was 20 years ago, the decline in female IT graduates seems counter-intuitive. ICT has never been more accessible to anyone who cares to use it. In an age where the majority of young Irish females have regular access to the latest smart mobile devices, social media technology and broadband internet access, and are relative ‘experts in the use of these technologies’, why not look to be more than just a user of technological innovations? Be one of the innovators.

Challenging the myths about this field

In the past year, BIS at UCC undertook a concerted campaign to positively target female-only secondary schools in Munster. Focus groups, using brainstorming techniques, were conducted with students to explore their knowledge about IT degree programmes and career opportunities. BIS delivered targeted presentations focusing on IT-related degree programmes.

A survey of all students involved in these knowledge exchange sessions was also conducted. The findings indicated that the general attitude and perceptions of female students about IT-related degree programmes and career opportunities are largely outdated. These insights highlighted the need for better quality information to be made available in richer and more innovative formats, as well as emphasising the need for improved engagement between second level educators and those at third level offering IT programmes.

The outcome of our campaign was to improve the awareness of IT related degrees and IT careers amongst young females, and subsequently increase the number of females applying for and accepting a place on the BIS undergraduate degree programme in UCC. In 2014, BIS experienced a growth of 11% on 2013 in the number of female students accepting a place in the degree programme. In addition, when applying through the CAO, 90% of first year BIS students selected BIS as their first preference course.

It’s too late to address these issues once decisions about degrees have been made

BIS recognises the importance of communicating the diversity of roles in the IT field to female students; communicating the message that while mathematical aptitude can be important for certain specific IT roles, its absence does not preclude someone from succeeding in IT; and tailoring the information provided to students so that it conveys these positive messages while dispelling old-fashioned views held about the IT field.

In order to further redress the IT gender gap, we also recognise the need to take a step back from the ‘Women in Technology’ discourse. Although influential and critical for the IT field it is, in many respects, too late to address these issues once decisions about undergraduate and postgraduate degrees have been made. These discussions need to occur much earlier, at primary and most importantly at secondary level, in conjunction with third level educators and business. In order to change this mindset, a more holistic approach should be taken to provide young women with the knowledge and confidence to make an informed decision about their future careers.

Jointly written by Dr Ciara Heavin and Dr Gaye Kiely, Co-Directors BSc Business Information Systems, University College Cork, and Ms Patricia Lynch, Director BIS Placement Programme, University College Cork.

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