What’s stopping young women from taking up a career in IT?

A male-dominated IT industry is problematic to a workforce that faces skills shortages in technology. Women are crucial to keeping up with the demand in an ICT workforce that DEEWR predicts will grow by 33,200 workers or 7.1 per cent from 2012 to 2017.

The problem is there’s not nearly enough women entering the industry as there should be. The Australian Computer Society’s Statistical Compendium 2012 found women only make up 19.73 per cent of the total ICT-related occupation workforce, declining from 24.10 per cent in 2011.

However, the percentage of women working in the industry may increase if the number of young women studying IT is any indication. In 2013, 52 per cent of students studying IT at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) were women. This compared to 51 per cent in 2012 and 52 per cent in 2011.

Grace Sharma, a recent IT graduate of RMIT University, completed her Bachelor of Telecommunications and Electronics Engineering in November 2013 and landed her first job as a system engineer at a consulting company in Melbourne in March 2013.

Sharma says there were more than 200 men enrolled in her course at university and about less than 10 per cent were women, with most of those women dropping out within the first two years.

CIO Australia spoke with Sharma, who is a member of Females in IT and Telecommunications, about the IT gender gap and what she thinks is stopping many young women from taking up a career in IT.

The ‘I’m a woman, I’m bad at maths’ myth

Sharma says there’s a myth ingrained in the minds of many young women that’s negatively impacting their confidence and interest in exploring the world of IT: that women are inherently bad at maths and problem solving.

“They think they can’t do it. Sometimes the stereotypes still come in where they think ‘I’m a female and maybe I understand this stuff and it’s cool, but I don’t think there’s a future in it for me or I can’t progress straight through’.

“There have been people I have met, who I’ve studied with at university, who have gone into work and they have told me that they have seen actual projects or pieces of projects where they know it’s no space for a female, they know that a girl can’t grow there.”

Popular TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory that depict a woman out of place in a world of boy-geek kingdom also “subconsciously tells young women ‘we don’t know this, we don’t know that; the guy is better or more knowledgeable at fixing stuff like that’”, Sharma says.

Nothing could be further from the truth, she says. “I think many girls can and I have seen many girls been able to do that.

“I love problem solving, analysing, physics and maths. My father inspired me since I was small and he made me sit and learn maths. He gave me that love and passion for maths and understanding for physics and how concepts work.

“I love optical fibres and watching light go through fibre, how the physics of it all work. Then going off into IT, it has become more practical. You see it at a level where you use it every day. I love it for the fact that you are helping people and you are solving everyday issues that are becoming more and more important to productivity.”

The ‘all guys’ environment

Working in a male-dominated team can be intimidating for a young woman at the beginning of her career, Sharma says. Even though she has become “blind to the fact of being the only girl” at times, she still sometimes struggles to make her voice heard.

“It can be intimidating at the very beginning because you feel like you can’t talk the way they think. The guys [at work] want things done in a certain way and they are sort of managerial in their own way. When I come in, I think to myself that way is somewhat unnecessary. I think differently to how they think, and sometimes we clash because of that.”

Sharma says she was “scared” at first to talk to the guys at work and her manager when she started her job, but says young women need not to fear to put themselves out there and share their ideas.

“You come in with a refreshing point of view and no girl should be afraid of that,” she says.

“At university, the guys would have their own groups and they wouldn’t talk to each other because they wanted to solve it on their own. But we would encourage them not to do it alone or to go within your own group. Let’s cross communicate and talk about this, let’s share ideas, let’s see it from a different angle.”

The ‘you're best suited to something else’ bogus argument

If you really want something, you’ll make it happen, Sharma says. “The best advice I got from one of the guys at work is be the master of your own world. You are there because you love the technology.”

Sharma reflected on an experience she had with her careers advisor in high school who told her that going into an IT-related field is too hard and advised that something like nursing or teaching would be a more comfortable fit for her.

“If a girl genuinely loves engineering and problem solving and analytical stuff, then don’t discourage her,” Sharma says.

Exposure to the industry and demonstrating how technology works in a practical way is what is needed to help change perceptions of IT among young people, Sharma says.

“At the high school level, it’s about showing them what’s out there in IT and showing them how things work. For example, bringing across a packet switch simulation to see how it works in real life. Or taking them out to the NBN centres and showing them the optical fibres.

“They have this picture of engineering [in their head] but they don’t see how it works. When you show them how it works, so real life implementation and implications to people, I think they then will decide this is really interesting. Maybe they will want to see more of it happen in real life.”

Follow Rebecca Merrett on Twitter: @Rebecca_Merrett

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