The Gender Gap in IT
A digital divide between sexes in IT has been observed on both a European and world-wide scale (1), on one part concerning this field’s *use* (mainly in developing countries), but more precisely concerning its *mastering*.
In France, while 30% of women work in computing jobs, the sex introduces an essential difference as we approach the core of passionate programmers (Breton, 1990). In fact, this discipline’s evolution is especially interesting because in opposition to other scientific disciplines, the number of women has dropped since the end of the 80s. While a computer engineer’s training was one of the courses that included the most women in 1980 – with 20% – they are now only 11,5% in 2000 (2) (Marry, 2004). This decline appears inexorable, whether the sector is undergoing crisis or strong economical upraise. The INSEE (French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies) has discovered that “men’s position in consulting and assistance activities is still reinforced since 1992. Since 1995, they represent more than two thirds of the effectives in computing activities, and their share grows constantly”. (INSEE, 1999)
In the Times when Computer Science was a Feminine Discipline…
In the 70s, computers were considered to come directly from the typing machine tradition – a technical object mostly associated with women (Gardey, 2001). The computer was seen as an office machine and computer science was considered as one of the socially acceptable jobs for a woman engineer, since it came from the tertiary sector.
One can notice that this perception of IT jobs still exists in countries such as Malaysia (Lagesen and Mellström, 2004). In the Computer Science and IT University at Kuala Lumpur,
Department officials and the Dean are all women. From the descriptions they make in their interviews, a feminine construction in IT jobs obviously subsists:
- computer science is a job that does not demand physical strength
- taking part in computer science hardly ever causes physical injuries
- computer science doesn’t get you dirty
- computer science is an office job, that even allows you to work from home
With Microcomputers, Computers become Men’s Science.
Microcomputers arrive in France in the early 80’s. Boys are the first equipped, as usual for all technical items. They are also the main – if not exclusive – users of family computers. Around these computers grows a society of technophile teenagers, hostile to girls, at an age where identity stakes encourage them to take a position as a male image. In common belief, microcomputers represent the entire computer science sphere, and computer scientists are perceived as an adult version of these young technophiles. Twenty years later, this prejudice towards science students (women and men) still survives. Despite the diversity that exists in the uses of a computer – and in the evolution of these uses – a computer scientist is still first perceived as a developer.
The Computer Scientist Cliché Today
The image carried out by a minority of enthusiastic computer scientists becomes more and more persistent on the profession’s image. Since the year 2000, magazines selling “computer mythology (3)” have appeared in news kiosks. This situation is paradoxical as a genius developer’s profile is not something businesses are looking for. He is generally perceived as technically brilliant, but also as asocial, unable to work in a team, as a rebel to any kind of hierarchy, impervious to the requirements of productivity. In addition, less than a third of computer science jobs require programming. However, this visible minority of computer science enthusiasts (who’s ambiguous image – sometimes a terrorist, sometimes a Robin Hood – attracts, fascinates or repels) has become a reference in science students’ practices and speeches. Because of this, it has been observed that many girls are turning away from these sectors, by fear of having to identify themselves with this ideal type, or to be compared with it. At the same time, the few girls that engage in these kinds of studies are those who have a vision of IT rather in line with these realities.
Since 2005, computer science departments in universities have noticed that the pool from which they recruit in is running low (though we can not yet say that there are difficulties in filling up courses), some groups no longer have a single girl. Until the year 2000, if the number of women studying computer science had decreased, this number had remained roughly stable. Nowadays, the disappearance of girls in computer studies is approaching.
Author: Isabelle Collet
Source: This article has been published in “La vie de la recherche scientifique”, December 2006, n°367, p. 38-39.
Translated into English by Julia Buchner and Delphine Lebédel
* This expression comes from Delphine Gardey (2004)
1. In the case of Europe, see in particular the SIGIS survey: Strategies of inclusion: gender and the information society : http://www.rcss.ed.ac.uk/sigis/ and also : WWW-ICT – Widening Women’s Work in Information and Communication Technology : http://www.ftu-namur.org/www-ict/
2. Source: CNSIF, ID Report from 1972 to 1995. For the year 2000: Catherine Marry ‘s calculations are based on manpower charts made by the French Ministry of National Education’s school (Ministère de l’Education Nationale)
3. Sometimes, this refers to technical reviews that provide tips and tricks, and also to tabloïds tossing around fantasies about network security, piracy, etc.
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