Girls in IT

Since I was about 5 years old and got my little hands on my first Commodore 64 in 1986, I’ve been comfortable around computers. At first it was all about the games, and then it was about the BASIC programs that my mum and I wrote after school. Later on it was about mIRC, ICQ and horrible geocities pages. And now computers are my job, hobby and obsession. Computers have been in my life for well over 20 years in one way or another and I totally take them for granted. Oh, and did I mention that I’m a girl?

However, this is not the norm. The norm is that girls don’t play with computers and don’t work in IT. But why? Why are there so few girls in IT?

Well, the answer is that there is no one simple reason. It’s something that Universities and education ministries around the world have struggled with for years. For every 200 guys graduating from Computer Science at University, there is 1 girl. This may not be the same at every University around the world but it’s a pretty sad statistic. The same is true in the IT industry. Basically, girls are under-represented in IT almost everywhere you look.

Anyway, I thought I would list a few of the factors that I believe strongly contribute to why so few women end up in IT:

  • Programming is not taught in all-girls high schools
    This is obviously a pretty big reason why girls don’t take up computer science at University. I actually experienced this myself when I was told in no uncertain terms that “girls don’t program” after asking what programming languages we’d be learning in our Computer Studies course in an all girls’ college I went to in Wellington, New Zealand. The result of this is that any girls who may be interested in trying Computer Science or Computer Engineering at University are already starting off at a disadvantage, especially compared to boys who apart from being curious and probably having played computer games and scripted for years already, may well have been taught some form of programming in high school, simply because they are boys.
  • Barbies versus binary
    Parents continue to buy their daughters dolls while their sons get computer games and game consoles. I don’t have children but I have friends who do and I have seen this happen time and time again. If children that young are seeing and being made part of this divide, how can we really expect it to be any different when those same children are trying to decide which career to follow?
  • Working with computers is seen to be nerdy and uncool
    There is quite a strong stereotype around geeky computer programmers and it could be possible that a lot of girls, in their formative years, don’t feel that it would be cool to be associated with that sort of image. Peer pressure is a huge motivator for many children and adults, and if that peer pressure is telling girls not to spend time on computers but rather to spend that time reading fashion magazines then that is what they will do.
  • Could it be that our brains are just wired different?
    I’m no psychologist or doctor so I don’t have the answer to this one. But obviously males and females are different in many other ways so it only follows that our brains probably work differently as well. However, I do believe that this is the last string in the list of reasons why girls aren’t in IT and should most definitely not be used as an excuse for it. As pointed out above, I think there are other reasons why girls don’t pursue IT careers that need to be looked at carefully before we fall back onto a reason that we can’t really prove or do anything about.

Having done a 4 year degree in Computer Science and now having worked in IT for more than 5 years and having quite often been the only girl in my team, I would also like to dispel some of the myths about working in IT.

  • You don’t have to be a social outcast to be a girl software developer
    There is a stereotype surrounding girls in IT – usually very geeky looking, perhaps overweight, no friends, bad skin, etc etc. This is not true and most of the girls I know in IT are very much the opposite – smart, intelligent and strong women. It doesn’t matter what you look like or how you dress; if you want to be a programmer, go for it.
  • All guys working in IT are geeky and no fun to hang out with
    Again, this is complete rubbish. Guys who work in IT are for the most part smart, funny, kind and caring. I’ve been friends with geeky guys all my life and in my experience, they’ve been way cooler to hang out with than the mindless jocks who don’t even know how to turn a computer on.
  • As a girl in IT, you’ll never be as good as the guys you work with
    Not true. If you’re good at what you do, people will realize that and treat you accordingly. Just make sure you keep up to date with the technologies that you use in your job and don’t be afraid to speak up if you’ve got some ideas you want to share. The guys in your team will come to trust and respect you and trust me, that’s a great feeling.

So if you’re a girl and you’re thinking about getting into IT, here is my advice:

  • If you have some geeky friends, ask them for help or advice.
    Asking people who already work in IT what it’s like for them may help you get a better idea of what it might be like for you. Ask them if they can show you some of the work they do, or help you get started with a small project of your own.
  • Set up a blog or a small website for yourself.
    Creating a blog for yourself is a great way to start learning about IT. There are plenty of free blogging engines out there like Blogger, WordPress or Textpattern. This is a great introduction into some common but very useful technologies (HTML, JavaScript, CSS) and you’ll end up with a cool blog that you can use to express yourself online. Pretty cool huh?
  • Keep up with some technologies that interest you by reading online blogs and articles.
    Whether you’re interested in web programming, desktop application development or linux scripting, there are many resources out there for you to keep an eye on. It’s always handy to be able to tell interviewers that you actively follow some geeky site – it shows that you’re truly interested in IT. Some good sites to check out are Coding Horror, Joel on Software, MSDN Blogs, however, there are many many more out there.
  • Go get yourself some IT qualifications.
    If possible, go to University and do a Computer Science degree. However, if you can’t or don’t want to do that just yet, do a short course with a polytechnic or some equivalent. A qualification will not only give you the introduction you’ll need to start off in IT, but it will prove to those who interview you that you’re serious about what you want to do and that you’ve got the smarts to pull it off.
  • Don’t let the lack of women in IT put you off.
    For me personally, being in IT has been a lot of fun. I’ve met heaps of really great people and have fit right in with all the development teams I’ve been on. IT guys will treat you like one of them and you’ll never feel left out.

And finally, if you have any questions or want any advice on any of the above then please post a comment on this blog and I’ll be more than happy to have a chat.

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6 thoughts on “Girls in IT

  1. I’m seeing some of this change and most of it perpetuate with my nine-year-old daughter. There is something inherent that draws girls to dolls somehow. Maybe it’s innate, maybe it’s the fact that “everyone else has one”. My daughter already tells me to “move your nerd stuff” when I forget a portable hard-drive in her room.

    I see a lot more girls that age interested in technology, but as a means to an end, not as something to “tinker with” as we did with our Commodores (Compute Magazine!). We play video games together but the popular ones are ones where you don’t particularly need to win: Wii Music, My Sims (and The Sims 2), Club Penguin. Even Lego Star Wars and its offshoots reward exploration more than completing specific tasks. It seems girls like the interaction more than the actual goal.

    • @Kyle Baley: Hi Kyle, I think that really depends on the girl. Growing up, I read tons of books and played Sims, Mortal Kombat, etc…often by myself after hanging out with friends for days straight. Playing games was my “reset” button.

      Even now, I spend a few hours a weekend relaxing by playing Diablo3 while my fiance tries to drag me away to the movies. It has nothing to do with the social situation…I just enjoy the games, the accomplishments, and the challenges.

      I may not be a coder, but I am a female Project Manager in software development (the only girl of course). As a social person, “winning” the teams over has been quite an exercise. It’s true that the skepticism (and obnoxious chauvinistic attitudes) can be frustrating, especially when you have to walk on eggshells before making any technical comment while the men can throw around idiot remarks left and right.

      Progress is a process; one that I believe is getting better by the way.

  2. I reckon that there is some definate wiring differences between the male and female minds’ which gets more guys interested in it – where as girls not so much so. But as with everything there are exceptions to the rule.

    Highly recommend the book “Why men don’t listen and why woman can’t read maps” if you haven’t already read it – touches on I.T / Computer stuff on being one of those right brained spatial object non-people type things (that guys tend to enjoy).

    Thing is, the best programmers are those who can eventually relate to customers and clients well which actually puts females at quite an advantage if they can do the tech stuff as well :)

  3. I have been an IT in the Navy for 5 years now, and I was wondering how I could go about being taken more seriously? I have repeatedly been correct when I have troubleshot and fixed problems and errors within our network, but it seems as though my advice falls on deaf ears. My theory is that ifI was out of the military that I would actually be sought after for advice…please tell me in the civilian sector there is hope for those having 2 X chromosomes. I am getting out soon and I want to continue being an IT, I just would like to pursue this career with less obstacles.

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