Encouraging women into IT: is that needed and how do we do it?
Is there a shortage of women in IT?
There has been some debate in the testing community recently about why there are few women presenting keynotes at conferences. I think there are several reasons, but one is that there are relatively a small number of women in the IT industry. If the proportion of women is small, there will be a smaller pool of women who want to speak at conferences, and therefore a smaller number of women who want or are able to provide keynote addresses. Further, we can observe that when jobs in the IT industry are discussed, it is programming rather than software testing that is the subject. So of the proportion of young people entering the industry, only a small number will consider testing as their first choice, and of those, some will be women. In this piece I want to think about why this is, how we might encourage young people into software testing, and how we might encourage women to enter and stay in the IT industry.
Has there always been a shortage of women in IT?
Indulge me recounting a small piece of my personal history. When I left school I did a number of rather dead-end jobs, working in a factory, then as a cleaner and as a cook for a while. When I decided I wanted to return to education, I went to my local college and was given an aptitude test to find out what I might be suited to do. The test indicated electronics and engineering as a suitable path, so I was sent to that department for an interview. This was the early 1970’s and in those days, it was legal (and in many people’s eyes reasonable) for the man interviewing me to say “you are intellectually capable of taking an electronic engineering degree, but you’d be the only woman in the department, so I think you should go to Computer Science, because that is a women’s subject”.
I’d just like to pause and reflect on that… computer science… a women’s subject…
Along I went to the Computer Science department, where indeed there was a high proportion of women among the lecturers and students. I got a place on the computer science degree, and I have not looked back. In those days, at the college and workplaces there were a fair number of women among the programmers and other IT professionals with whom I worked. I’ve put a brief history of how I moved from programming to testing on the EuroSTAR Test Huddle, and like many of the other contributors to that topic, I did not set out to be a tester, it just happened to me.
When we look at the history of computer science, from Ada, Lady Lovelace onwards, women play a significant part; women have contributed both to the research, the innovation and the practice of the computer science and IT/engineering industries. We might think of Grace Hopper, Karen Spark-Jones, Steve Shirley and Professor Dame Wendy Hall among others. Steve Shirley’s company FI was founded in 1962 specifically to provide IT jobs for women with dependents, and to support their working patterns. The F stand for Freelance but also for Flexible – these flexible work patterns don’t just benefit women, and modern society acknowledges that men also benefit from flexibility in working patterns.
In recent years the number of women entering and staying in IT has dropped [see the references listed below]. What I am not sure about is why this has happened; something has changed since the 1960s and 1970s about the perception of the industry and who contributes to it. I do know that my experience of the industry still indicates the same ranges of intelligence, aptitude and drive in both the genders. I don’t see a massive difference in ability or desire to make projects succeed.
How do we encourage girls back into IT?
In the UK a number of initiatives are in place to encourage girls to continue studying STEM subjects (Science Technology Engineering Maths) including an effort to bring mentors from industry into schools. At present I am not involved in these schemes, but one of my “to do” items for 2015 is to see how I can become involved locally to encourage students. As part of that, I am going to present on software testing to students (boys and girls) during May this year, at the local college. Increasingly I have realised that part of giving back needs to be mentoring not just within the industry, but also to younger people, before they make subject and career choices.
I also want to investigate what is happening at one girls’ school near where I live. The headteacher was quoted in the Independent newspaper: “Rename them Steam subjects, one teacher suggested in an intervention which could take much of the heat out of the controversy over whether pupils should pursue the arts or sciences. Steam, she argued, as in science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics, rather than Stem.” This initiative at the school has raised the number of girls in the school taking STEM subjects above the national average of 19% to 76% taking at least one STE subject, with 46% taking 2 or more STEM subjects. Allowing a mix of arts and science in the subject choices has to be good for the pupils’ development and for the future of an industry where design skills, communication skills and aesthetic sensibilities are increasingly important.
So how do we get more women in IT, and hence more women speaking at conferences, and thus have more women available to provide keynotes…? A first step is by current IT workers, including testers such as myself and you, taking part in mentoring and encouragement at or local schools and colleges. We then continue that engagement, as youngsters enter the industry. And we apply that mentoring to girls and boys, encouraging a diversity of entrants into the industry.