New ways emerge to tackle stubborn gender imbalance in computer science

Exposure to coding at a young age and initiatives such as Rail Girls can get more women into tech careers

In 2008, young women accounted for 14 per cent of all undergraduates enrolling in computing courses at Dublin City University. Five years later, the percentage has stubbornly refused to move on and women are still in the minority.

Lecturer in the computing department at the Institute of Technology, Carlow Nigel Whyte says that the last decade has seen a significant drop in female registration.

“Ten years ago it was about 40 per cent female. For the past number of years it has been between 10 per cent and 15 per cent.”

If we look to the US, we see a similar picture. A 2012 report from the Girl Scouts of the United States indicates that while 74 per cent of girls express interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects, only 0.3 per cent of high school girls choose computer science as a college degree.


Additionally, only 26 per cent of women with a Stem college degree go on to pursue a Stem career.

Gender stereotypes
We can ask ourselves why high levels of childhood interest in science and tech do not seem to translate to women in computing courses and jobs but the answer is inevitably multifactorial.

Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has pointed the finger at gender stereotypes.

"We don't raise our daughters to be as ambitious as our sons. Last month, there were T-shirts sold that said 'Smart like Daddy' for the boys and 'Pretty like Mommy' for the girls," she stated at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

There are those here in Ireland who don't see these statistics as disappointing. They see them as an opportunity for change.

Initiatives such as Coder Dojo Girls, Rails Girls, ComputeTY and Girl Geek Dinners bring computing skills and support networks to younger children, teenage girls and adult women alike while the recent Coder Dojo conference, DojoCon 2013, held at Slane Castle, consciously featured an even split of male and female speakers.

ComputeTY has been running for the past seven years but recently the Dublin City University-based programme for secondary school students has made a concerted effort to get girls to take part.

"The programme started out with web design, but two years ago we introduced a second programming stream and initially only 20 per cent of the girls opted for this," says Christine Stears, marketing officer for the faculty of engineering and computing."We've been targeting all-girls schools, encouraging them to take part and now the split is 50/50," she adds, explaining that interest in Facebook or smartphones alone does not translate to an inclination towards computing.

"Students don't see that as having anything to do with a career in technology; it's just part of their lives."

Exposure to coding
What matters, it seems, is exposure to coding; give teens a taste of what to expect at the third level: "The statistics show as a direct result of ComputeTY five new students have joined the faculty every year over the past seven years. It's working."

Jennifer Foster is a lecturer at DCU and teaches on the ComputeTY programme. She says the gender balance, in terms of ability, is equal. "There's no question about girls being as gifted as boys at computer science. In terms of talented students there's no difference in my lecture room here in DCU either."

What is equally difficult, for both genders, is knowing what to expect, she explains: “Careers and job specs in computer science are changing all the time whereas if a teen wants to be a doctor, they have a good idea what to expect.”

When asked if there was one thing she could change to improve this, she says what most programmers and technology companies around the country want to hear: “Change the curriculum. A practical suggestion is to give more schoolchildren the opportunity to actually do it. If the Department of Education is serious it will just make computer science a subject.”

What about gender balance within the technology industry? Does being a minority mean being treated differently?

Not at all, says Niambh Scullion, programmer with Cúram Software (now a subsidiary of IBM) and a mentor with Coder Dojo Girls: “The career scope for women in computer science in huge. I’ve never felt that it was seen as a novelty to be a programmer.

“Where it lacks is awareness in that computer science is perhaps not the first study option that occurs to young students.” Scullion adds that it is sometimes perceived to be a lonely desk job involving nothing but coding or debugging. “Programming is just the beginning. And it’s an extremely social, interactive, collaborative career.”

Coder Dojo Girls runs workshops that teach the basics of web design – HTML, CSS and JavaScript – and builds towards game development. It differs from the regular Coder Dojo in that the content is more likely to appeal to younger girls, for example creating a piano game.

Rails Girls
Meanwhile, across the city (and coming to Galway in May), Rails Girls is an opportunity for grown women to get into programming.

Organiser Emily Castles works with Red Hills Software but came from a background of civil engineering, and so entered the world of coding as a postgraduate student.

“After the economic downturn the tech industry was one of the few that were still thriving and I was looking for a change. I chose a technical computer science degree but maybe people get scared off by the term ‘computer science’.

“They think of in-depth programming and assume that it’s very mathematical. There are so many layers to technology, some more technical than others.”

Castles adds that while she thinks there is a definite lack of women in technology she’s not sure that it’s being scared of maths or computer science so much as lack of exposure pre-university.

Rails Girls began in Helsinki in November 2010 as a free workshop for women interested in building web apps using Ruby (programming language).

It now has workshops running throughout the world, including a recent event in Dublin organised by Castles and a forthcoming Galway workshop on May 17-18th co-ordinated by PhD student Myriam Leggieri.

What is so heartening about Rails Girls is that, like Coder Dojo, all of the mentors volunteer their time and skills and the events are completely free. These movements are showing us that no matter what your age, gender or income level, you can learn to code if you are willing to put in the effort.

Preceding these coding movements is Girl Geek Dinners, a support network for women in IT that started in the UK in 2005.

As of January 2011 it has spread to 53 cities around the world. The Dublin chapter was set up by Martha Rotter (publisher of Idea Magazine ) and the baton has passed to Christina Lynch, analyst at Deloitte and proud geek girl.

Lynch started out with a general science degree in University College Dublin but when she saw her brother writing code for a heart monitor as part of his PhD she said something clicked and she specialised in computer science.

“Code can be used to help people. There’s so much technology behind every company. It’s needed for important sectors like the medical industry. If you do a degree in anything technical you can bring in any of your interests.”

Girl Geek Dinners is designed to raise this kind of awareness and show that there is huge diversity within the tech industry. “At a recent event we had a technical lawyer speaking about her job. And someone spoke about the benefits of Open Source, which made me want to contribute.

As a young, driven woman who can serve as a role model for the next generation, Lynch has her own ideas about inspiration: “Not so much a person – it’s everyone that’s working in tech. I’m fascinated by the fact that we can do so much with technology and there are still things we haven’t learned about. It’s exciting to know that there is still so much we have yet to do with technology.”