Just Boys and their Digital Toys

Astha Rajvanshi on women in IT and engineering.

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In an online Whirpool forum titled, ‘Gender spread in engineering courses?’ Jason132  (user #363658) writes, “I know this sounds highly sexist, but does anyone think that males in some ways make better engineers than females? The good female engineers I know seem to be tomboy types. I guess that’s a broad statement”. Littleman (user #324191) responds, “girls (in general) are bad at maths, problem solving, and anything to do with logic”. Starcraftmazter (user #58651) backs up Littleman’s point. “Girls in general do not have much of a drive?” he says.

In engineering and information technology (IT), these kind of comments are not unusual. The number of women who participate in these fields is low, and their achievements are often perceived as insignificant and lesser than their male counterparts.

In Australia, women currently comprise only 28 per cent of the IT workforce, and a mere 11 per cent of the engineering workforce, with an even smaller percentage likely to hold senior management positions. In 2013, one in five IT students were females, and worse still, a recent OECD report states that only 3 per cent of Australian girls are contemplating a career in engineering or computing (compared to 17 per cent of boys). By 2020, in a room full of 25 engineers, only 3 will be women.

While the reasons behind this disparity may vary, the fact remains that little is being done to change this culture.

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Elizabeth Wu graduated from a Bachelor of Computer Science at Sydney University in 2004 and is currently working in data warehousing and data management. She comments that although numbers of males and females were roughly balanced at the beginning of her undergraduate studies, this trend changed as as she progressed through the course and picked IT for her specialisation. “The lack of females around was mostly apparent in third year … often I was one of only a handful of girls in each of my subjects, sometimes the only one,” she recalls.

Whilst Wu believes she was not treated any differently to other students by her professors, she does not say the same of her male peers. “It was difficult to be friends with some of [them] especially straight out of school. For example, if they’re looking for a date and I’m looking for a friend, we often couldn’t meet in the middle that well,” she explains. “The result of this is that while I did have a few friends, I spent more time alone than I wanted to.”

In many instances, the gendered interactions are subtle, not immediately apparent to either male or female students.

Christine, currently studying a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering at university, describes her experiences in engineering as mixed. In one instance during a lab session, she recalls a male peer who discredited anything she had to say. “[He] physically tried to ostracise me from the group”.

Similarly Betty, a student in Mechanical Engineering (Biomedical) recalls a Facebook conversation in which her male peers blamed her for a missing document and asked her to compensate them for their losses by ‘making them a sandwich’. “This didn’t have a big impact,” she says, “but it demonstrated to me that there is an undertone present amongst the peers, and how female students’ advice is to let it pass”.

“I find that sometimes you find it hard to understand something or would take longer to understand a concept than my male counterparts which is frustrating,” says Christine, who is currently undertaking Mechanical Engineering.

This readily admitted reluctance and lack of confidence amongst many women goes to the heart of why IT and engineering are male-dominated professions. In a destructive cycle, many women seem to internalise the problematic attitudes around them, coming to see themselves as incapable, instead of the profession that is letting them down.

“I don’t know why this perception exists though, because there is nothing anatomically different that would make a male better than a female in IT,” says Elizabeth.   

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Most women I spoke to commented that the word ‘engineering’ often suggests stereotypes associated with masculinity, such as hard hats, fluoro vests and complicated maths equations.

For Christine, it comes down to a lack of education about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degrees in high school. “Even from a young age, boys are inadvertedly encouraged to pursue STEM subjects with toy selection (i.e. kinect bionics, play tool shops, lego) whereas toys for girls are limited to barbies and toy kitchens,” she says. The assumption that men are generally better at logical subjects like maths and science leads to the perception that women are better in humanities,  and may even fear maths. “I actually didn’t know engineering was a thing until my second year out of school!” she says.

Between 2009 and 2010, Julie Fisher, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University, surveyed and interviewed women to find out why IT was a turn off for women in relation to their career choice. She found that the biggest hurdle was the image of the profession—an area that is technically focused and often described as a “boys’ club”, where women struggle to develop networks and be recognised for their skills. This resonates well with Elizabeth’s experiences in her first job in IT, where customers would ring up and ask to speak to “one of the boys”.

Another reason behind the discrepancy is the lack of successful female role-models in these professions. Elizabeth says that during her time at university, she was heavily influenced by one of her female lecturers. “She didn’t actively help me in particular because I was female, but just having a female lecturer made me feel less alone,” she comments. “It made me realise there is no reason that a female can’t do computer science, and gave me the motivation to hang in there and see it through.”

For many women studying IT and engineering, relief comes in different forms.

“My main coping mechanism is humour, which comes at a real advantage whenever a guy throws me some sexist remark,” says Christine.

On the other hand, Katy finds that having a close group of girl friends within engineering makes the experience a lot better. “They are in the same situation so having some girl time is great! We go out for dinner, have picnics and movie nights,” she says.

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At Sydney, the Sydney University Women in Engineering Society (SUWIE) is run by students to provide support and networking opportunities for women studying engineering.

“As engineering is male dominated, it can often be hard for girls to fit in,” explains Katy Lu. “This is where SUWIE comes in, we encourage all women who study engineering to attend our events, from bake sales to cocktail nights to form networks among their peers.” SUWIE also has many industry contacts, and will often advertise opportunities only targeted at women.

Yet while commendable, such initiatives do little to force substantive change. The gender discrepancy will only be resolved when more women choose to pursue IT and engineering as a profession. And that won’t happen until that’s a choice that’s actively encouraged and adequately supported.

Professor Fisher comments that encouraging more girls in schools to see these professions as fun, exciting and creative will eventually result in more women studying them at university.

“With more graduates we will start to see the climate in workplaces change, encouraging women to stay and prosper in the industry,” she says.  “As long as the industry remains male-dominated we will face an uphill battle to see significant changes in the future.”