Today is the International Women’s Rights Day, and we wanted to take the opportunity to talk to you about a subject that is close to our hearts: women in IT. Wait, wait! Don’t leave right away. The purpose of this article is to tell you about our experience to give you a better vision of why there aren’t many of us, why some give up, and, above all, how to make that change. So, if you too want more female colleagues, read on.
Did you know?
In the 1980s, almost 40% of computer science students were women. Yes, really!
It is not clear exactly why this trend suddenly changed, but the theory of commercials that have associated personal computers and video games with men and young boys is often put forward.
Today, in France, women represent 23% of employees in digital professions, and only 17% in development.
In my school year at university, there were about 15 women for 200 students.
Out of 15, at least 6 gave up computer science during their studies or within 2 years.
To my knowledge, there are only two of us still doing software development.
How did we get here?
Today still, and even in developed countries, women are less likely than men to lead an active life, especially full time - this is related to the place of women in society, which is a broader subject, but which plays a role here too.
According to this study, paradoxically, the more egalitarian a country is, the less women orient themselves towards scientific studies. In countries less well off in terms of gender equality, they engage in scientific studies to ensure a stable and lucrative career. Conversely, in more egalitarian countries, women have more career choices, so they can leave room for their preferencies. This indicates a real lack of attraction of the profession for women.
Women who enter IT world
Several factors contribute to the lack of women in IT.
First, from the 1960s onwards, IT professions were constantly gaining prestige, salaries were attractive, and many men turned to them. Men were also favored during selections in universities.
Then, the appearance of personal computers widened this gap even more. Computers were expensive, more men worked and knew how to use them, so they bought them for themselves and for their sons. In addition, as mentioned above, the commercials helped reinforce the idea that computers were primarily intended for men and young boys. As a result, the computer was seen as a male tool. In households, girls spent little or no time familiarizing themselves with it.
When computers arrived in schools, girls had more difficulty than boys. Often, the level of the course was aligned with that of the most seasoned. As a result, girls, for lack of support, dropped out or even reoriented themselves in other fields.
Was this when the idea was born that women are less good at computer science than men? It’s hard to know exactly.
At around the same time, the image of the geek was built (or generalised, I should say): a young man who lacks social skills, loves video games and computers and who we find a little weird without really knowing why. This image has been conveyed by movies, science fiction novels and TV series. It is also still strongly present in these media. Are you familiar with The Big Bang Theory?
All of this has helped create social and gender stereotypes that influence adolescents in their career choices. These stereotypes are at the origin of various expectations concerning the social behavior and the academic success of women and men. And they are passed on to children from an early age, whether through families or teachers, often unconsciously. I invite you to read this study if you want to know more.
Computing is a world seen as masculine. Thus, nowadays, in high school (not to say middle school), there are few girls who are interested in science.
Those who drop out
As we have just seen, few women choose a career in computer science. But there are also 41% of women who drop out of IT within the first 10 years.
Among the reasons that push them to make this decision, we can see this:
There are women who experience great pressure at work related to associating certain tasks with a given gender.. For example, there is always the idea that women are better than men in organization and communication skills. However, there is, at present, no study that would show that women or men are naturally more talented for a given type of task.
However, in some companies, people still tend to ask women to take care of such tasks. Women do well, so they are given more and more time for these other tasks. Little by little, often in spite of themselves, women find themselves far removed from their main duties.
The problem is that other team members often tend to view these skills as less aligned with what it means to be a “real developer / engineer”. Women, therefore, feel that they have to prove themselves again on their technical skills and find their place in the team once again. This situation creates pressure, adds stress to everyday life, and also impinges on the work-life balance.
In addition, women are encouraged by their superiors to upgrade their skills in positions that make them abandon development. And here is the observation:
Women are therefore sometimes dissatisfied with their career prospects. They feel that they cannot evolve the way they would like to, and they eventually give up IT and choose another career path.
Another reason why women quit their IT profession is sexism. Unfortunately it is still very present in our society in general, and not only in IT. At work, it can range from a little awkward remark once in a while to a hostile environment where women don’t feel safe.
We could tell you dozens of situations that have happened to us, but if you have read the article so far, we hope you are not concerned by the subject. If you’re curious, an interesting study addressed the subject recently. For example, it shows that 86% of women notice sexist behavior, compared to 58% of men only, so there is a fairly significant gap in the perception of events.
Raise awareness from an early age
Today, many schools and universities are taking actions to attract more young women to scientific fields. But often, at that age it is already too late, the desire to avoid these professions is already installed. We must therefore intervene earlier, as soon as possible actually, to prevent reluctance to set in.
Here are some ideas of what you could do yourself.
For younger children, exposing them to science in general is a good start. You are going to spend a few days with your family? Take the opportunity to do a simple experiment while playing with your nieces and nephews.
If you have 12+ year old girls around you, you can introduce them to computer sciences. Try to help them take an interest in it, accompany them in their first steps. You could tell them where to start, where to find relevant resources, and how to find help when needed.
There are hundreds of MOOCs on the internet, available for free on sites like Coursera.org, Edx.org , Udemy.com. MOOCs are a great way to study at your own pace, and they give access to a community where students can seek or give help.
Or why not invite them to do an internship in IT if you have the possibility?
Having female mentors
Another approach to make young women want to take an interest in IT is to highlight the contributions made by other women in this field.
And there is a lot to cover. You could tell them about Grace Hopper, Margaret Hamilton, Katherine Johnson, Shafi Goldwasser and many more. You could also show them the movie Hidden Figures for example. Get them to meet your female colleagues who might encourage them to pursue a career in IT.
A healthier environment for women
In addition to increasing the number of women who join scientific fields, we must ensure that they feel good there and that they pursue this path. For example, governments are raising awareness among companies on professional equality between men and women. Obviously, companies in the digital field are the most affected, and they are looking for women to hire.
However, even if women are sought after (and sometimes even favored to obtain a position), male colleagues are not necessarily used to working with them. According to a study published in 2018 by Cornell University, men overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate them. Out of habit, women will be less likely to assert their positions, and this is where attitudes will flow that do not trust them or constantly question them.
To avoid this kind of behavior, you have to adopt a certain amount of mental gymnastics, and ask yourself a few questions before any intervention:
- Did I listen to my female colleague?
- Does she have more experience than me on the subject?
- Did I check for myself before intervening?
- Do I have real reasons to question her statements?
In the same way, as a supervisor, you need to pay attention to the desires of progress of your team members, and to avoid allocating tasks to a person based on social stigmatisms and received ideas.
Regarding sexist remarks that may take place at work, even if you are not the author, you can intervene. Pointing out to the author that a comment is inappropriate and supporting the woman or women around you helps to clean up the environment, and to gradually ensure that these situations do not repeat themselves. If your female colleagues feel supported, they will be less afraid to report inappropriate behaviour, will feel better overall in the team and will be able to contribute better.
The final word
Women in IT cannot improve the situation alone, and even if the governments implement actions for gender equality, it is up to each and every one of us to promote these wonderful professions, by breaking misconceptions in the eyes of young girls. You can shake things up: improve everyday life, trust and give confidence to the women who you work with, as you would any colleague.
We are counting on you so that in a few years we can write an article on the increase in the number of women in IT :)
See you soon !