Two weeks ago I was at an ISACA Scotland Chapter event where they mentioned an upcoming ‘Women in IT’ event to be held in November. This is all great stuff to get more women involved in security / IT in general but I feel events like these are advertised to the wrong people – I highly doubt there will be many teenagers, students or young adults in the audience who aren’t already on the IT path. It’ll be a group of mostly established IT practitioners who are feminists and collectively nod their heads that we need to fix this gender imbalance issue without actually doing much about it apart from talks like this. Perhaps I’m too much of a cynic…!!
We need to get more girls signing up to computer science related degrees. Getting involved in school activities such as coding clubs for kids is a great way to introduction. A couple in Edinburgh are CoderDojo Scotland and PreWired. Even my employer RBS has got involved, running a club at Gogarburn.
We then need offer support during their degree and hopefully this will lead to them actually graduating – only a handful of other girls in my year in the computer science department graduated due to a very bad gender balance to begin with, but also a terrible dropout rate. Edinburgh University is not alone with dropout rates – the STEM subjects do seem to struggle with women dropping out more than men.
I actually struggled myself about whether my computer science degree was right for me during my penultimate year. Sometimes what people say have a long lasting effect, and one statement in particular that I remember was one of my lecturers saying in an offhand way in a tutorial was that if you didn’t like programming, then you shouldn’t be doing this degree. I truly disliked programming in the first three years of my degree, because I found it hard and don’t think I was taught it in a helpful way. Computer science at Edinburgh was taught in a very academic and theoretical manner, so I was often left wondering “so what?” or “how does this apply in a real life example?” for many lectures. So that comment really threw me. I didn’t like programming. But that lecturer was short sighted in thinking that computer science = programming and nothing else. This mentality that computer science is about programming or that your future job will be 100% technical in nature can alienate women. Interestingly all the girls I know from uni and others who did computer science, only one of them went on to be a software engineer.
The ISACA meeting also went over what the chapter can do next year. The subject of getting students to events and/or training courses was raised, and concluded that students want free things and we should entice them with “pizza and beer”. I rolled my eyes at this point. I went to a Girl Geeks ‘cyber angels’ event three weeks ago, and that was also something that the host Samantha mentioned, and this Forbes article agrees on, pizza and beer is off-putting to women.
The Girl Geeks session was excellent – a real mixture of students, industry practitioners and those looking for a career change. The talks were varied and interesting, but something mentioned a few times was the role of mentoring. When I was at uni I was not offered any kind of mentoring. I joined the women in computer science society – Hoppers, and became a committee member, and we organised sessions so that newer students could talk to older students and also some evening events with speakers from industry, but I never had the opportunity to get one on one mentoring as a mentee. I now do lots of mentoring with Napier Uni who seem to have that all sussed out. I’ve been mentoring students there for the last 5 years and it’s really good fun and hopefully helpful to those who have taken part. I’ve certainly learnt a lot as a mentor.
In conclusion, I think a lot more work need to be done to get girls to even consider computer sciencey degrees. Once they do though, the university and industry really have to help them out to make sure they have enough support and guidance. The Girl Geek Scotland network seems like an excellent place to start. Get rid of the idea that a career in IT is technical only, and beer and pizza is the way to get students involved. Provide mentoring and nice environments for meetups – not pubs!