Is IT for men only?

Bill Gates, Turing, Von Neumann... it would be easy to believe that women are not made for IT. Or is this just the view of a male-dominated world, which upkeep women’s lack of interest in this science?

In his book, Émile ou l'éducation, Rousseau considers mathematical logic to be soul-destroying and explains that it cannot be practised by women without completely changing their nature. More generally, he believes that it is not “natural” for women to be interested in science. Does this old-fashioned idea still apply to the new science that is information and communications technology (ICT)? Why are women under-represented in IT professions (less than 30%) and even less well represented in the corresponding training courses (less than 20%)?

One explanation could be that the ICT professions (all the sectors of economic activity that contribute towards the visualization, processing, storage and transmission of information through electronic means) were developed from mathematics, physics and technology. This has resulted in a concentration of the sexist stereotypes from these areas: that women are supposedly handicapped when it comes to technology, computer scientists are social misfits, their pantheon will never accept women, etc. (chapter 1). Isabelle Collet, Chantal Morley and Marité Milon, research professors at the INT Management and Telecom business school in Evry, are studying the attitudes of their female students in order to gain a better understanding of how young women decide which courses to take. This research is part of the “Sexties” project (gender and information technology). Power games, assertion of identity and personality, roles played by girls in group work,… are some of the elements that make up the “hidden” curriculum vitae of female students (chapter 2).

In 2009, which will mark the end of three years of work with the female students at INT, the researchers hope to reveal what pushes some of them towards ICT in spite of the prejudices and difficulties. Perhaps this will help them produce an incentive for other women to take the same career path. In the meantime, they are supporting the various projects being carried out by businesses, institutions and associations to make up for lost time in opening up IT professions in particular, and scientific professions in general, to women (chapter 3).

01.Received ideas

"Work in IT? Absolutely not. It’s too complicated, really repetitive and on top of all that, it’s a world full of self-centred blokes who are really immersed in their relationship with their screens” This could be the kind of response from a young girl who has just taken her “Bac” (French equivalent of “A” levels) and is faced with making career choices. True or false?

First of all, we should remember that one thing at least is true of all scientific studies, and that is that women are just as capable of scientific and technical thought as their counterparts. Whatever Rousseau’s views on the matter, IT is no more complicated for the female brain than for the male. In France, the number of boys and girls taking science subjects at “Bac” level is more or less equal and more girls than boys pass these subjects first time! Girls are therefore capable of achieving success right up until the end of high school, yet they don’t want to continue on this career path as they are not represented in equal numbers in scientific subjects at higher education level.

It is at this stage that the argument of free will is often brought into play. In other words, it’s a personal choice and not a constraint. However, this is forgetting the subtle pressure young girls experience throughout their education and their school years. First of all at home, where well-meaning parents “want their sons to be successful and their daughters to be happy”, according to Claudine Hermann, the first female Professor of Physics at the Ecole Polytechnique (one of the most prestigious French engineering school) and a member of various committees on the role of women in science. Even if girls have the same skills as their brothers, often their social environment (family, friends, teachers etc.) remains dubious about their abilities in this area. They are more rarely pushed towards high levels of achievement and excellence than their brothers. This creates a division between the sexes in the roles they play right from the start.

This division has also been reinforced by our stereotypical view of the IT expert as a technophile man, who is hostile to girls in general, an unsociable loner. He is the “geek” (stereotype of the computer enthusiast) version of the introverted scientist. This caricature first appeared in the middle of the 1980s. Before that, women occupied 30% of the places in IT studies whereas now this figure is less than 15%. In the meantime, we saw the arrival of the microcomputer - in particular Atari and the onslaught of video games - which produced generations of enthusiastic and often withdrawn (or so it seems) teenagers. According to Isabelle Collet, who carried out a survey of female science students at Claude Bernard University in Lyon, "This vision is a lot more off-putting for girls than it is for some boys, who manage to find a part of their own personality in this image.”

Over the years, girls have developed a biased view of the IT professions. For example, 44% of the 300 girls who took part in the survey believe that IT professions are “repetitive and dull”. They are referring to computer programming or development – even if it is not true – and in doing so are forgetting all the related careers such as web design, online publication, bioinformatics, image processing etc. Conversely, for some boys computer programming would be their greatest fantasy. According to the study carried out by Isabelle Collet, they would choose this career path with an image of themselves as the “Pentagon hacker” or making pots of money from hacking etc. Whereas Isabelle Collet believes that such images would not really motivate girls. “It’s about time young people thought beyond the stereotypes of the profession and made their choices with a realistic view of the sector”, she says hopefully. Even though choosing a profession because of a fantasy vision of the sector could bring success in both the long and the short term.

Women’s resistance to computer studies can seem contradictory considering they use computers on a regular, if not daily, basis. In a survey published in 2003, the ministry for research and new technologies in France noted that 37% of women under 40 use the Internet compared with 47% of men the same age*. Today, mothers file their photos on the family PC, teenagers set up their own blogs and chat on the Internet, students use Word, Excel and Photoshop, etc. The same goes for video games, which are all too often lumped together as “shoot them up” games (in which the player takes on a character who has to destroy a bunch of enemies using weapons that become more and more powerful as the game progresses), street fighting, car racing etc., thus forgetting a whole section of games such as quizzes, card games and board games “which would interest girls more”, according to Isabelle Collet. It is not that they are “naturally” attracted to dolls whilst boys are attracted to fighting, it is just that their upbringing generally points them in that direction.

Then again…whilst this is undoubtedly true for the generation of adults who were given, 10 or 20 years ago, a doll if they were girls and a PlayStation for the boys, these generalisations do seem to be changing now. More and more girls are positively devoting themselves to online strategy and simulation games such as Sims, Everquest and Eye Toy (there are no official statistics available but several limited studies carried out by businesses confirm this). For now, “the use of computers by girls is not talked about because it is different to that of boys, who represent the points of reference for these technologies both at school and in leisure time. They are therefore not acknowledged.” This is how Isabelle Collet analyses the situation. The result is that girls dare not be proud of their knowledge and make way for the boys, who are the only ones to go on to study IT.

At a European level, there seems to be something else stopping women from working in IT, according to the www-itc (widening women’s work in information and communication technology) study carried out by the Fondation Travail-Université de Namur (Belgium). According to this study, which was carried out in seven countries, some people think that it is difficult to achieve a good work-home life balance in ICT; whilst the reality is that the arbitration of women is different to that of the professions with more classic hours: “Long working hours are not considered to be an obstacle if, in exchange, women enjoy more autonomy in the management of their time and in planning constraints and commitments”, the authors of the study believe.

02.The "hidden curriculum"

What children learn at school is not restricted to the school’s educational programs (or national curriculum). Through interaction with other pupils, textbooks, cultural differences etc., children build up a “hidden curriculum” modelled on the image society has of them. At school, therefore, children learn to concentrate on the subjects that conform to their gender. Their development at school and the subjects they take become part of what makes up their identity. “Teenagers, both male and female, compare themselves with the prototypes for a certain profession to see whether they match up”, explains Isabelle Collet in her book L’informatique a-t-elle un sexe?* (“Does IT have a gender?”). “A woman can only accept that she resembles a computer scientist if she accepts that she will have to integrate some characteristics into her own self that are generally considered to be masculine,” she goes on to explain. Even if she is really enthusiastic, a teenage girl would probably not choose to study computer science just so that she could still be a “girl” in the eyes of others.

Though unintentionally, the education system also maintains this gulf. For a long time, school leaflets encouraging children to take IT were aimed exclusively at boys. The same applies to textbooks, which are not written with equality in mind. “In IT lessons, teachers leave boys to manage on their own more and are less likely to take the mouse when they come to help them (especially as boys absolutely refuse to let them)”, says Isabelle Collet. In addition, a study carried out in 2004 showed that teachers’ responses are twice as long when they are talking to girls. The differences cannot be put down to actual difficulties but more to the lack of confidence girls have, which reinforces the prejudices of teachers. In any case, how can girls identify themselves with a world that they think is reserved for men? Does anyone mention in class the great female characters in the history of computers, such as Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), who was the first person to write a computer program and Grace Hopper (1906-1992), who invented the first compiler, which was used to make programming accessible to a broad public?

The Sexties project (gender and information technology) carried out by the INT at Evry and coordinated by Chantal Morley, aims to help us understand better the career choices made by girls. It started last year and will take place over three years with three main areas of research: setting up a hidden curriculum as part of a certain event, developing the representation of technologies amongst a group of 20 or so students at INT Evry and the experiences of around twenty people who have “a career in technology”.

The first part of the project was studied during Challenge 2006, a competition between groups of female students who each devised plans for setting up a business. In the power struggles that inevitably took place between the team members, technology and computer skills in particular turned out to be a way of taking control. Out of 320 young participants, two groups (12 students) were part of the study and four groups (22 students) were interviewed. At first glance, the asserted and determined character of the girls leads us to believe that their role does not differ from that of boys. But a more in-depth analysis shows, however, a different approach. Whilst it is true that girls master technology just as well as boys, they do not turn it into a vector for power within the group. Another finding to come out of this first year of the Sexties study: “We have pinpointed several different kinds of attitudes amongst girls towards leadership,” explains Chantal Morley. “Some are more conciliatory, more ready to listen, less authoritarian etc. Others give up the position of leader because they refuse to manage “in a feminine way”. Finally, others use femininity as a masquerade: visibly feminine, able to talk in a way that promotes communication and exchange, they actually set up their leadership with a strength and strategies which are more like the attitudes of the “virile” leader.


* Published by l’Harmattan in 2007.

03.The solutions

Why should we try to stop the downturn in the numbers of women in this sector? Quite simply because by 2010, with the explosion of the ICT sector (53% growth, which is the equivalent of 204,000 jobs to be created), we face the prospect of a shortage of scientists and especially of computer scientists. The situation in France is mirrored at a European level. Predicting a dangerous situation in terms of our competitiveness, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) has decided to rekindle women’s enthusiasm for science, the only breeding ground that has not yet been exploited.

The second reason, and one which is more controversial, is that we need to maintain diversity. This is the argument that can be found in the publication issued by the European Professional Women’s Network on the best business practices to implement policies of mixing the sexes. Claudine Hermann, Professor of Physics at the Ecole Polytechnique and a member of the think-tank on the place and role of women in sciences, believes that “diversity is a source of richness. The presence of women will create better working environments.” Isabelle Collet and Chantal Morley indicate on the other hand that we must not confuse diversity with complementarity. “Both men and women say they prefer to work in a mixed environment. However, it would be a mistake to say that women have specific skills that are down to their gender. The individual qualities are what are really important. Differences between individuals are always more significant than differences between gender groups.” Moreover, if women have been excluded from science for reasons of supposed gender differences (their incompetence in relation to men), it would be a shame to reintegrate them for the same reasons (their diversity in relation to men).

Thirdly, Isabelle Collet believes that "there is no reason to exclude women from this economic sector, especially as it is a growth sector.” But if women are given a bit of a boost, will that end up in “positive discrimination”? “No, women are not a minority needing help, but rather a section of the population which is discriminated against. Redressing the balance is not about discrimination but about catching up”, is the response given by Isabelle Collet.

Let’s now take a closer look at the form this “catching up” will take. There are a great many initiatives to encourage girls to take sciences in general. These include the recent creation of the French website "Elles en sciences", the L’Oréal-UNESCO program for awarding five women researchers who have contributed to scientific progress, and the opening in 2006 of the Émilie du Châtelet Institute, the first research network for developing and publishing research on women, sex and gender in France. There are fewer campaigns in the specific area of computer science because the problem is more recent and less well known. It is worth mentioning, however, the twenty recommendations set out during an inter-ministerial colloquium in 2005. These include in particular, creating university courses on the history of computer science, increasing the number of grants for ICT courses for girls, making the promotion of related professions clear and visible. “One thing we really need to do is change the way ICT professions are promoted, since the presence of women is rarely mentioned and communications are addressed explicitly to men,” says Chantal Morley. As far as associations are concerned, tutorial systems are being set up. The Ada project at INT Evry, for example, aims to facilitate women’s access to ICT, in particular through a system of “sponsorship” for future IT employees.

In the business world, more and more initiatives are being set up. The French women’s network InterElles, for example, was set up in 2002 by the managers of several industrial companies including IBM, Schlumberger, France Télécom and EDF. The idea behind the network is to discuss business practices aimed at integrating and promoting women in a scientific and technological environment. At IBM, the “Elles” group is made up of 250 women who have been working towards this for more than six years now. The result is that 28% of the executive managers are women (compared with a previous figure of 20%) and there are five women (out of 27) on the management committee, which is chaired by a woman. Their campaign for a balance between work and home life (especially for working mothers) has been recognized by the specialist magazine Working Mothers; and the French association of female journalists (AFJ) awarded them with the prize for the least sexist advertising in 2004.

All of these initiatives are aimed at highlighting the fact that it is the individual and not the gender that makes the difference. After all, we must remember that women are no more from Venus than men are from Mars!

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